Redistricting 2020: Lawmakers Mull Change in How Inmates Are Counted

Colleen O'Dea | January 8, 2020 | Politics
Despite criticism and promises of reform, no other changes are now up for debate in NJ’s legislative reapportionment process
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter

Prison inmates would be counted at their former homes, not where they are incarcerated, when New Jersey redraws its legislative boundaries next year under a bill now poised for final passage by state lawmakers.

Advocates for the change say the existing apportionment system inflates the population of places that host correctional facilities and distorts legislative representation both in those places and in the communities where the inmates lived before being incarcerated. State legislative district boundary lines are redrawn every decade to account for shifts in the population so that each contains roughly the same number of people.

“This would end prison-based gerrymandering … which skews communities’ political power and undermines the constitutional guarantee of one-person-one-vote,” said Helen Kioukis of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. Because the disparity in the incarceration rate between blacks and whites in New Jersey is the highest in the nation, that “strips communities of color of their full voting strength,” she said.

While legislative reapportionment is still more than a year away, lawmakers have been thinking about the process for more than a year, having proposed — and rejected, following a public outcry — broad changes in the creation of district boundaries that critics had said would likely have favored Democrats.

Despite legislative leaders’ statements that they would consider other reforms to New Jersey’s process, no other changes are up for debate at the moment, even though the state’s reapportionment methodology has been criticized.

Currently, the chair of the two major political parties each appoints five members to a commission. When the 10 partisan commission members do not agree on a map of districts — and they typically don’t — the chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints an 11th, nonpartisan member who breaks the tie or comes up with a new plan that one side or the other joins to approve.

A number of academics, think tanks and good-government groups all have called on lawmakers to make various changes in the makeup of the committee, the criteria for constituting districts and the lack of transparency in the process.

Only legislative districts are mentioned

The bill now up for consideration does not go nearly so far. Rather, A-1987, which the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved Monday in a 7-4 party-line vote, would just tweak the way prison populations are counted, at least by the commission that redraws state legislative boundaries, specifically. It does not mention congressional redistricting.

The New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission traditionally uses federal Census Bureau data when considering population. The census counts inmates as living at the facilities where they are incarcerated on Census Day — April 1 — and reports this in a “group quarters” count.

But the state does not have to follow suit and six other states — California, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New York and Washington — already don’t, choosing to count prisoners at their former addresses.

Advocates for the bill say that is more appropriate because inmates are not members of the community where the prison is located and for the most part won’t be settling there on release.

“They are going to be released at some point,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), one of the bill’s sponsors. “Over 60 percent of the incarcerated return home to their communities.”

“They are not there by choice and cannot use the community’s services,” said Aaron Greene of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice. “They remain legal residents of the home communities to which they will return upon release and they should be counted there.”

Counting inmates in their prison locations winds up overstating the population of host communities, they said. For instance, three state correctional facilities in Cumberland County housed almost 6,500 people last year, according to the state Department of Corrections 2019 report of offender statistics, but fewer than 300 of them were convicted in Cumberland. A plurality of those incarcerated in Cumberland came from Camden County.

Christie vetoed earlier measure

All four Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, but without comment. When it passed the Senate last February, only one Republican — Sen. Joseph Pennacchio of Morris County — voted for it.

Both houses passed a similar measure, largely along party lines, in the prior legislative session, only to have it vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, whose veto message hinted at a political motivation for the change.

“This bill smacks of political opportunism, as evidenced by the party-line voted by which it passed both houses,” wrote Christie, a Republican. “Despite the alleged social justice benefits of the bill touted by its supporters, I am not persuaded to enact such a marked deviation from the Census Bureau’s clear and long-standing guidance.”

A report by Stateline, a state policy news initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts,  suggested that changing where inmates are counted could in some cases shift power to cities and away from rural areas that may house correctional facilities.

Census officials had considered changing where they count the incarcerated and while that proposed change received overwhelming support, the bureau ultimately decided to maintain the status quo.

The change should not lead to a huge shift in lines, given the state has only about 19,000 people incarcerated.

If the state’s current population, estimated at 8.9 million, remains steady in the 2020 count, that would mean each district should number about 223,000 residents. Currently, district nosecount estimates range from about 210,000 in the 24th in northwest Jersey to some 236,000 in the 33rd in Hudson County, which is home to Democratic Assemblyman Raj Mukjerji, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Under the bill, it would be up to state corrections officials to determine each individual’s address prior to incarceration and report counts with that information to the apportionment commission.

Sumter said she hopes the full Assembly will give final passage to the bill during its last voting session next Monday and that Gov. Phil Murphy will sign it into law.