Census Counts Prisoners Where Jail is Located

By Erin Delmore

The law is simple: one person, one vote. But some say certain legislative districts in New Jersey and around the country are getting more than their fair share while others lose out through a process known as “prison gerrymandering”.

“If we speak of the dilution of political power, it can happen by counting prisoners not from the neighborhoods in which they live, but in the neighborhoods in which they’re now being held or incarcerated,” said University of Minnesota Professor of Sociology and Law Christopher Uggen.

Here’s how it works. The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the place where their prison or jail is located, not their hometowns. It’s always been that way. But as the number of incarcerated people grows, some say it’s skewing democracy.

“What we do in the prison census tab by including people in the prison they’re housed, not their home community, is we artificially inflate the power of that local jurisdiction. So part of that involves political participation. We now have a larger district so they get more political influence. There are some funding streams that are dependent on population, so that may be affected as well. And people in prison, unlike, say, college students and other transients, are not really connected with the community,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.

Select a site for a new prison, and it’s bound to be in someone’s backyard and that can be a tough sell to the people who live there. This softens the blow: counting the prisoners as residents of the surrounding town. Come Election Day, prisoners can’t vote — it’s against New Jersey law. So when a resident votes on Election Day, he or she is speaking on behalf of a much larger number of people than can lawfully cast a ballot. When the resources come back to the district, fewer people share the pot.

“When you have concentrations of incarcerated people counted all in a single prison rather than dispersed at home, the people who live around the prison exercise their vote but the weight of that vote is as if all those people who were incarcerated were voting the same way,” said Prison Policy Initiative Legal Director Aleks Kajstura.

According to a press release from the New Jersey Senate Democrats, Burlington County is home to only 5 percent of New Jersey’s general population, but it hosts 20 percent of New Jersey’s state and federal prisoners. Meanwhile, Bergen County is home to 10 percent of New Jersey’s population, but hosts only 3 percent of prisoners.

“People in prison, most of them are going to be released from prison, generally going back to their home communities. That’s where they feel some stake in the community where they want to have some influence,” Mauer said.

There’s movement in the state Legislature to count prisoners according to their last known address. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, four states have passed similar laws, along with more than 200 local governments.