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Lawmaker’s long-shot effort to end ‘prison gerrymandering’

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About one-third of Arizona’s roughly 42,000 prisoners are housed in a single legislative district.

As prisoners, they can’t vote. But because the U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as residing in their prisons and not the hometowns they’re likely to return to upon release, this non-voting population bloc adds to the legislative power of the mostly rural communities where prisons are located.

One lawmaker wants to change that, following the recent lead of neighboring Nevada in changing state law to require that the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission count prisoners as residents of their hometowns when drawing new legislative and congressional districts.

Martin Quezada

Martin Quezada

“It’s a matter of counting people and representing their interests rather than representing the prison’s interests, and that’s exactly what the end result would be if we do count people in their home districts,” said Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale.

But while Quezada plans to introduce a bill next year to end a practice that critics refer to as prison gerrymandering, he acknowledges that it will be hard to sell at the Legislature. And one influential Republican lawmaker, who represents the district with the highest prison population, said he’ll do everything in his power to kill the bill.

Six of Arizona’s nine congressional districts and 10 of its 30 legislative districts contain correctional facilities. The impact those prison populations can have varies from district to district.

Each member of Congress represents about 710,000 people, while each state legislator has a district with about 213,000 constituents. At the state level, the impact of non-voting prison populations is small. Even in the 4th Congressional District, which has the largest prison population in Arizona, prisoners make up just 2 percent of the total population.

At the legislative level, about 13,600 people or 6% of the residents of the 8th Legislative District are behind bars, according to June 2019 prisoner population data from the Arizona Department of Corrections.

This gives voters in the 8th Legislative District, which includes Florence, Coolidge and Eloy, more voting power than those in districts without a prison, said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Wanda Bertram

Wanda Bertram

“You might get a district, and this is an exaggerated example, where there’s actually only 30 people living there and there are a thousand prisoners, and the amount of political clout it has is as if there were 1,030 people living there,” Bertram sad. “Ultimately this gives a disproportionate amount of clout to districts that contain prisons and given who is incarcerated, it tends to take electoral power away from poorer communities and communities of color and center it in rural communities where prisons are located.”

Lawmakers should recognize that it’s “simply wrong” to wield any kind of political clout that doesn’t reflect the constitutional principle of one person, one vote, Bertram said. She said voters should care about prison gerrymandering because even if they might benefit from being in a state legislative district that contains a prison, they could have less voting power than a neighbor in school board elections if that prison is in the neighbor’s school board district.

Quezada said the issue matters especially to him because his West Valley district has the most returning prisoners. These constituents aren’t being well-represented if they’re counted in districts where they’re temporarily incarcerated, he said.

“My argument would be that they truly reside in their home communities before they’re arrested and after they’re released,” he said. “That’s where their families are, that’s where they’re going to be seeking work, that’s where they’re going to spend the majority of their life. If they’re not being counted there and instead they’re being counted where they temporarily reside in a prison, their interests as far as all of their life matters aren’t really being counted.”

Census data is also used to allocate federal funding to states, but advocates for changing where prisoners are counted note that counting prisoners at home won’t affect funding for rural areas. Most federal funds tied to census counts are disbursed through block grants to states, and individual states then divide that money among jurisdictions.

Six states — Nevada, California, Washington, Maryland, New York and Delaware — have passed laws requiring prisoners to be counted at their home addresses. Cities, counties and school districts throughout the country have also passed policies that prevent the counting of prison populations when drawing new maps for their districts.

Pinal County adopted such a policy after the 2000 census, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. County spokesman Joe Pyritz said the county used census numbers that included incarcerated people when it last redrew its supervisor district maps.

Tony Sissons

Tony Sissons

Attempts to change how the census is used for redistricting are usually political, said Tony Sissons, an Arizona redistricting consultant.

“Most of the time when there is a call for an adjustment to the census and how the census is used, it usually has partisan underpinnings,” Sissons said. “All adjustments seem to work well for one party and not work well for another.”

Because smaller communities invite prisons for economic development purposes, counting inmates at their prisons tends to benefit rural areas, Sissons said.

House Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, represents the district with the highest prison population. He said he’s very aware of efforts to change how prisoners are counted.

“This is a national effort to have more voting power as far as redistricting is concerned within inner cities,” Shope said. “It’s a purely political move.”

Shope said he considers Quezada’s planned legislation an attention-seeking type of bill that members on both sides of the aisle run without a chance of passage.

“If it were to ever go anywhere, I would use every ounce of will that I have to make it die a quick death,” he added. “There’s no way I’m going to punish Florence and Eloy in my district.”

One comment

  1. Balance within the system is an appropriate goal, but the stunning figure of 42,000 incarcerated within a ‘small’ population state is wildly out of proportion. Time to follow progressIve venues and have sentences fit crimes.

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