April 14, 2010
New York Times
Maryland struck a blow for electoral fairness this week with a new law requiring that prison inmates be counted at their home addresses when legislative districts are redrawn after the 2010 census. Other states should follow.
Counting inmates as residents — prison-based gerrymandering — inflates populations and exaggerates the power of the mainly rural districts where prisons tend to get built. It undercuts the power of the mainly urban districts where the inmates come from, their families live, and to which they return after release.
With 1.4 million inmates nationally, the practice of drawing districts around prisons can easily shift a state’s balance of legislative power. And while most states have laws saying that prisons are not legitimate residences, the practice persists for reasons of politics or inertia. Since the national census does not ask for prisoners’ home addresses, to get the right count, state bureaucracies need to use other available records.
Lawmakers in Maryland acted after learning how the prison count had distorted their political landscape. In one state legislative district, nearly a fifth of the population are inmates, most of whom hail from elsewhere in the state. In one county commission district, inmates account for 64 percent of the population.
Studies have shown that many states have districts that would probably be illegal had they not been padded with inmates who often come from hundreds of miles away. More than a half dozen states seem poised to follow Maryland’s example. That is an important start. The best solution is for the Census Bureau to begin counting inmates at their homes beginning with the 2020 census.