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Prison-policy study shows how inmate counts yield redistricting clout

What a thing to throw at a county administrator on his first week on the job: One of the Waseca County Board's districts is perhaps the worst example of local prison gerrymandering in Minnesota.

A Prison Policy Initiative study released today finds that Waseca County Board's District 5 gets 24 percent of its population from a federal prison housing 943 inmates. Even though prisoners can't vote, the result is that each group of 76 people in District 5 has "as much political clout as 100 people elsewhere," according to the study.

Todd Bodem, who became county administrator on March 3, said he needs time to research the issue before he can comment. I can't blame him. This is complex stuff for anyone who isn't obsessed with the 2010 census, redistricting, voting and constitutional law. I sent him my Feb. 25 story on the issue.

On the legislative front, 5 percent of House District 56A's population counts 1,746 prisoners at the Stillwater and Oak Heights prisons. 

That's "coming up against a (U.S.) constitutional threshold," said Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Easthampton, Mass.-based Prison Policy Initiative. "You're allowed up to a 5 percent deviation if you have a fairly good reason for it. Here, there is no decent reason."

Count in prison or at home?
The Prison Policy Initiative is pushing states to drop prison populations when they start redistricting next year. The Census Bureau plans to release prison population data early so that states have that option. Ultimately, the initiative would like to see inmates counted at their residences before they were incarcerated. That probably won't happen until the 2020 census.

State Sen. Linda Higgins
State Sen. Linda Higgins

State Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, just introduced a bill to require "the exclusion of persons incarcerated in state or federal correctional facilities from population counts used for state and local redistricting."

While prisoners will be counted for the state's population, Higgins thinks they should be excluded from redrawing Minnesota's 67 Senate districts and 134 House districts.

So, why is this issue important?

"My explanation would be that the districts around the prisons," Kajstura said, "use the prison population to pad out their districts. So, anybody who lives close to the prisons gets more of a say in government than anybody who doesn't have a prison in their district — and that just goes against the basic principles of representative democracy."

Pine County excludes prisoners
Pine County already excludes prisoners from its local districts, she said. Otherwise, 18 percent of the county's fifth district "would have been nonvoting prisoners at the [federal] Sandstone prison, giving the residents of the 5th district disproportionate influence over county affairs," according to the report.

Leaving out prisoners during redistricting would have the most impact on House districts, said state demographer Tom Gillaspy. At the request of Sen. Higgins, the state geographic information service prepared state maps of Senate and House districts that include their prison populations. You can see the Senate's map here [PDF] and the House's here [PDF]. The reports also show the percentage of prisoners in each district.

This Prison Policy Initiative list shows which legislative districts have the most prisons.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

"Subtracting the prison population means that the average size of all districts goes down a little bit, but the population of districts where prisons are located goes down relatively more," Gillaspy said. "And if the district is already growing slower than the rest of the state or declining in population that means the district would have to be getting larger anyway."

Legislative district: as close to 36,713 as possible
That may seem counterintuitive. If a population declines in a district, it seems logical that the size of the district would shrink. But this is not the case in redistricting, he said. The geographic size of legislative districts grows in order to achieve an equal population across the board. Right now, each legislative district tries to come as close to 36,713 as possible in Minnesota.

The Prison Policy Initiative makes note of Minnesota's effort. "Indeed, Minnesota's House Districts are among the most equal in the country — only 3 other states have House Districts more equal in population."
 
So, how bad is Minnesota's prison-based gerrymandering compared with other states?
 
"I wouldn't say any amount of prison-based gerrymandering is acceptable," Kajstura said. "So in those terms I don't think whether you give somebody a little more rope than they should have or a lot more rope, that's fair. It's not as bad in New York because in New York there actually is a district that wouldn't meet constitutional limits without their prison population. In Minnesota, there isn't a district like this."

Casey Selix, a news editor and staff writer for MinnPost.com, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com. Follow her on Twitter.

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