SCOTUS Upholds Maryland Law Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering

26 Jun

prisongraphic2.gif Whatever one thinks of prisons and inmates, even capital punishment, can we agree that “prison-based gerrymandering” is petty politics.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Monday a lower court’s ruling upholding Maryland’s new congressional redistricting plan, which counts inmates as living at their last-known addresses instead of in their prison cells. But it may not be the last word on the matter.

Some Republican lawmakers opposed to the map, drawn once each decade based on U.S. census counts, have until Saturday to submit the nearly 56,000 signatures needed to put it on the November ballot and let voters decide whether the plan stays.

They claim Gov. Martin O’Malley and leaders in the House and Senate unfairly separated districts to maximize their party’s advantage and give Democrats a good shot at seizing the 6th District seat held by Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett.

And, in addition to the three other states that have a law similar to Maryland’s “No Representation without Population Act” of 2010, Kansas lawmakers devised a compromise, to save Kansas from the ignominious distinction of receiving the “Worst Prison Gerrymander” award.

The federal judges drawing Kansas’s new state legislative maps have deftly saved the state from earning the “worst prison gerrymander” award for the 2010 cycle of state legislative redistricting. In a report released on May 28, shortly before the redistricting trial began, the Prison Policy Initiative and Dēmos warned that one of the proposed maps would have been the most dramatic instance of prison-based gerrymandering in any state legislative district in the nation. We urged the court to divide the prisons between multiple districts, and the federal judges did exactly that.

As Mary Sanchez explained in a March Kansas City Star column, the high concentration of prisons in the Leavenworth area gave Kansas legislators “the potential for shenanigans like no other state.” By padding districts with prison populations from other parts of the state or nation, state legislatures give extra influence to those districts and dilute the votes cast in all districts that contain the required number of actual residents. The problem is called prison-based gerrymandering.

As Brenda Wright and I argued in our report, the map proposed by the Kansas State House was particularly problematic because it took what was already one of the most extreme examples of prison-based gerrymandering in the nation and made it worse. Existing House District 40 contains a larger incarcerated population than any other district in the state, and includes all but one facility in the region. The House’s proposed map moved the federal prison – which contains people from all over the country – also into District 40.

The result would have been a legislative district with a greater portion of its population behind bars than any other state legislative district in the nation. If the proposed House plan had been adopted, every 4 residents of House District 40 would have been given the political influence of 5 residents in any other district.

Still, this is only a stopgap measure, and it would be a travesty if this half-reform stuck. Jamelle Bouie argues why prison-based gerrymandering destroys communities.

What are proponents thinking? That prison-based gerrymandering is a means to profit from those who owe a debt to their fellow citizens who haven’t yet been imprisoned for smoking a joint? Why not just go the full measure, and make money? We should just replace inmates identification numbers with dollar signs.

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