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Michigan lawmakers move to end “prison gerrymandering”

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Some Michigan lawmakers want to end what they call “prison gerrymandering.”

The US Census counts prisoners as part of the population where the prisons are located.

Supporters of the legislation say the practice can unfairly increase population counts in some political districts - and leads to those districts holding disproportionate power.

Democratic State Senator Sylvia Santana introduced a bill that would require the state count prisoners at their pre-incarceration address when drawing political districts.

“Those individuals that may be representing those communities if it wasn’t for the prison population they may not necessarily have a seat.”

Santana said she anticipates pushback to the legislation.

“I do expect pushback from this legislation because a lot of people are benefitting from individuals being counted in their local areas considering the fact that some of these rural areas do not have the population.”

Aleks Kajstura is with the Prison Policy Initiative, a policy group opposed to mass criminalization. She said what she calls ‘prison gerrymandering’ can lead to representatives who oppose criminal justice reform.

“Just because representatives of districts with high correctional populations feel like they need those populations to maintain power to maintain their seats and to maintain their districts.”

According to Kajstura, three Michigan house districts drawn after the 2010 census have prison populations that make up five percent or more of the total population in those districts.

Kajstura said prison populations that large aren’t enough to create altogether new seats - but it does skew representation.

“Prison gerrymandering is just one tool in the gerrymandering toolbox. Being able to skew districts by five, seven percent doesn’t seem like much but adding it to other gerrymandering tools it can be used to distort power even more.”

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections says it is an “interesting” issue - but the department does not have a position on the bill at this time.