Pennsylvania Redistribution Fee Votes To Finish Gerrymandering In Prisons | Information | Pittsburgh
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As the state legislative lines draw, Pennsylvania will have tens of thousands of people incarcerated in state prisons at their previous home address rather than their cell before they were incarcerated.
This will effectively mark a small but significant shift in the population from the state of Pennsylvania to the cities, thereby increasing urban representation while decreasing rural representation.
The measure, sponsored by the minority leader of the House of Representatives Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia), was adopted with 3-2 votes after two hours of calm but sharp debate between the two Republican and two Democratic members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.
The commission is rounded off by an independent chair, the former Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Mark Nordenberg. Collectively, they are tasked with using the state’s census data to redraw all of the state’s 253 legislative counties and affect the balance of power in Harrisburg for the next decade.
McClinton and Senate minority leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) voted for the policy. The two Republican House Chairs – Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff of Center County – voted no.
Nordenberg, as chairman, was the tied vote for the adoption of the policy. It was the first in a series of tough and powerful decisions that he will make as Chairman.
“I regret that the first substantial decision makes two Commissioners feel they have won and two Commissioners feel they have lost,” said Nordenberg.
McClinton, who unsuccessfully pushed through a similar change in the State House, said her resolution would ensure people are adequately represented in the prisons.
McClinton said she and some of her colleagues in Philadelphia are used to taking calls from detainees – who do not live in their district – and their families who live in the district, and asking for help when the detainees are not voters, and don’t vote for them.
“It is well worth the time and effort to ensure equal elections and equal votes,” said McClinton.
The US census data counts prisoners as living in prison if they have spent most of the past year in their cells.
But McClinton’s resolution will instead take the 37,000 state prisoners from Pennsylvania and redistribute them to their address prior to their imprisonment.
Individuals in Pennsylvania prisons who did not live in Pennsylvania will not be considered at all in the redistribution of state legislation. And people without a home are counted where they “regularly stayed or regularly used services”.
Eventually, the approximately 5,100 people serving life sentences are still counted as living in prison.
For the final redistribution cycles, the data used by the commission counted inmates as living in their cell.
The resolution claims that the practice “artificially increases the population of the districts where prisons are located and artificially reduces the population of the districts the inmates came from”.
Proponents coined the term “Prison Gerrymandering” to describe the practice and to refer to the way district boundaries are drawn for political reasons.
The move will likely have the biggest impact on the 203-member house, experts say, whose wards hold 64,000 people each.
A 2019 study by two professors at Villanova University found that when detainees were redistributed to their home district, four districts became too small and four too large.
Three of the four undersized counties were rural counties and three of the four undersized counties were urban majority minority counties.
The resolution, said co-author of the study, Brianna Remster, the capital star, was “a big step towards a balance of power between rural and urban areas, especially minority representation”.
The resolution still has no bearing on how the state counts 8,500 federal prisoners, according to the latest federal data, or the roughly 37,000 people in county jails according to a 2018 estimate by the Prison Policy Institute.
Republicans pushed back, claiming they had legal concerns. They also argued that this is inconsistent with the way the census tracks other group attitudes.
For example, college students are counted in their dormitories and military personnel in their barracks.
“I think there are inconsistencies,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland). “We take prisoners, we don’t do college students. Why don’t we do college students? ”
“I know [prisoners] are not voluntary – but they really are because they committed a crime, ”added Ward. “You have been convicted of a crime, so you have lost your right to choose where you live.”
Ward added that she predicted the ruling would likely end up in court.
Nordenberg did not rule out a legal challenge, but seemed to be convinced of the legal basis of the decision.
“Nowadays you can not say in which direction a legal challenge could come,” said Nordenberg the capital star. “If you worry too much, there is nothing you can do.”
He added that he was initially skeptical of the data change when McClinton put it to him in a meeting in May, but Nordenberg’s mind changed as he delved deeper into the subject.
Ward and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Center) added that they had concerns about a delay in formalizing the adjusted census data that detainees were returning to their home district.
The legislative data processing center that oversees the census data told the commission that the move will likely take four to five weeks before the final redistribution of the data is done.
Remster, who used the correctional facility data in her studies, did not share her concerns.
“I hope it won’t take that long. It’s nothing special. It only compares addresses with blocks, ”said Remster.
The number of prison inmates can be a significant boost for some small, shrinking rural communities. Nearly a third of the population of Forest County, northwest Pennsylvania, is made up of prisoners in the SCI Forest, according to the latest state prison statistics.
Although most of the prison inmates are in rural areas, they haven’t just helped Republicans. Many prisons are located in the ancestral democratic coal country, and these districts have been kept small and focused on shrinking democratic communities.
The removal of detainees will then force cartographers to push the borders even further into areas that are likely to be more convenient for Republicans.
McClinton, however, pushed back any partisan attitudes on the matter.
“I wouldn’t say I was helped,” said McClinton. “This is a process that has happened so far. So it’s no help, it was like that. But that is no longer the case. ”
Still, the displacement of thousands of people will only exacerbate the census trends that caused Pennsylvania’s urban areas to grow and rural areas to shrink.
Stephen Caruso is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital star, where this story first appeared.
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