A new law will give California prisoners political power by counting them as residents of their home communities rather than in the communities where they are incarcerated, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The practice, which will be implemented after the 2020 census and subsequent redistricting process, is expected to shift political power from conservative rural areas toward more liberal cities.
“It’s going to make a big difference, especially in the viability of our African-American state Senate seats,” said former state assemblyman Mike Davis.
Davis referred to counting people in heavily African-American communities, instead of state prisons.
Although the law was passed in 2011, the state could not compile the home addresses of incarcerated individuals before the last redistricting cycle.
California will follow other states such as New York, which began the practice after the 2010 census.
Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative, explained that before the change in New York, state lawmakers from upstate blocked measures designed to reduce incarceration because their districts benefitted economically from the prison industrial complex.
“Reform happened, but it was much harder and took far longer than it should have,” Kajsturasaid.“Youcan’thave criminal justice reform if lawmakers feel that mass incarceration is how they got their jobs and how they can keep their districts.”
In response to the new practice, nine Republican state senators from upstate New York sued, claiming that the shift in political power would constitute political gerrymandering, which is the practice of dividing political districts so as to give one party an advantage.
“I don’t understand the logic of counting people where they aren’t, where they don’t live,” said Betty Little, a Republican state senator from New York who sued. “Counting those who are incarcerated where they once were and may never be again isn’t fair to the communities that actually provide the local services, such as water, sewer, emergency responders, health care and courts.”
A state judge upheld the New York law, stating that counting the incarcerated population in districts where they are incarcerated “tends to dilute minority voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
“Counting prisoners at former homes also can help ease prisoners’ transition to a productive life, at least symbolically, by keeping those home communities more politically viable and represented in state legislatures,” said Sandra Cunningham, a New Jersey state senator sponsoring a similar bill in her state.
“This is a good start in giving [prisoners] a stake in our society once they are released,” Cunningham said.