House Democrats seek to prevent prison gerrymandering

HARRISBURG, May 26 – House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton is asking her four colleagues on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to agree on a plan to count incarcerated Pennsylvanians in the communities they call home rather than the state facilities where they happened to be housed at the time they were counted. 

“Most of the people currently in state facilities will, sooner or later, be released from custody and resume their lives on the outside,” said McClinton. “It’s better for the purposes of drawing our legislative districts, which are population-based, to count these individuals in the communities they call home. It will result in better, more even representation for all Pennsylvanians.”

The people directly affected are those serving sentences in either a state correctional facility or a state facility for adjudicated delinquent youth. The proposal does not apply to federal or county prison facilities, which are not under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Corrections.

“We believe the method currently used is contrary to Pennsylvania law which states: ‘no individual who is confined in a penal institution shall be deemed a resident of the election district where the institution is located. The individual shalled be deemed to reside where the individual was last registered before being confined,’” McClinton said.

McClinton’s plan, presented today at a meeting of the reapportionment commission, specifies that the last residential address before incarceration or placement in a facility would be the one used, with data furnished by both the state departments of Corrections and Human Services. Each person’s record would include a unique identifier – but not that individual’s name – along with the last known address and the census block of the facility where the person was held at the time of the 2020 census.

The information would then be used by the state’s mapmakers to make granular adjustments to the detailed Census block data that will be received later this summer, known as PL-94-171 population data.

“This is not a radical idea,” McClinton said. “In fact 10 other states have already chosen to count their residents in exactly this way, including four of the states that border Pennsylvania. Connecticut adopted the change just last week for this year’s redistricting and we have sufficient time to do the same thing here.

“These other states recognized the value in using the true population of communities to produce more accurate, representative legislative districts and to preserve community interests,” she said.

McClinton noted that incarcerated people lack strong, enduring ties to the communities where they are held and, despite geographic separation, they often seek out the services of legislators in their pre-incarceration district.

Pennsylvania has 23 state correctional institutions and one motivational boot camp facility located in 19 different counties. The combined population count for these facilities in April was 37,284 people. In one example, 31 percent of the total population of Forest County is incarcerated.

Currently the U.S. Census counts incarcerated individuals as residents of the prison location rather than their previous residential address. This unintentionally inflates the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons at the expense of areas that don’t have one.

McClinton presented her proposal today and asked the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to consider implementing it before this year’s detailed Census data is in hand.