Where do Inmates Fall in Census Count? NJ Moves to End 'Prison Gerrymandering'

NorthJersey.com's Ashley Balcerzak Reports

Amid this decade's census count — which affects how U.S. congressional districts are drawn — New Jersey lawmakers are grappling with the question: Where do prisoners count?

New Jersey and a majority of states currently count incarcerated people in the districts where the prisons are, boosting population numbers in those districts at the expense of their home areas. Critics call the practice "prison gerrymandering."

The New Jersey Assembly Budget Committee on Monday advanced a bill, 7-4, that would count prisoners in the last known address before they were incarcerated, joining California, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New York and Washington, according to a tally by the Prison Policy Initiative, which tracks the issue. The bill passed the Senate in February, largely on party lines.

"We count prisoners for their bodies and deny them the right to vote, giving outsized political power to the rest of the prison district's population," said Henal Patel, associate counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which lobbies in favor of the bill. "We really only have this tiny window to pass the legislation, or it's moot for another 10 years after the maps are drawn. New Jersey is one of the first states to start redistricting." 

New Jersey already employs this on a local level: School districts exclude prison populations when allocating members for school boards with nine members or more. 

Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, who has sponsored the statewide legislation since 2012, said it is a problem of representation, where primarily rural areas count prisoners who mostly come from urban centers like Camden, Newark or Paterson. 

"Most people who are incarcerated, when they come out, they don't stay in the area of the prison or jail, but return to their hometown," Cunningham said. "We think it's important that everyone is counted appropriately."

For example, close to half of the state's adult prison population is housed in rural Cumberland County's three facilities, or about 6,400. But only 3% of adults in prison originally come from Cumberland County, according to New Jersey Department of Corrections data. That means those who designed New Jersey's 2nd Congressional District, which holds all of Cumberland County, counted thousands of imprisoned people who cannot vote and will most likely leave the area once they serve their time, giving the remaining residents disproportionate political power. 

The state Legislature sent the bill to Republican Gov. Chris Christie in May 2017, but he vetoed it months later. 

"Counting prisoners where they resided at one point in the past, instead of where they live and sleep presently, runs counter to how the federal Census Bureau and the majority of states allocate prisoners in the population," Christie wrote in his veto message. "It also makes little sense insofar as prisoners are consuming services and resources at the prison and may have only fleeting, dated, or tenuous ties to their prior residence."

People skeptical of this legislation also worry that towns hosting prisons will lose funding, said Aleks Kajstura, the legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative. But that's a common misconception.

Most of the biggest funds tied to census counts are big block grants, where states are pitted against one another. In that case, it matters only in what state, not municipality, you're counted. And at the local level, correctional populations are normally excluded in the data anyway, Kajstura said.

"It's about representation," said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Paterson. "We're already in census count 2020, so it's imperative that we have an accurate count to have the correct number and location of representatives."

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