This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.
By Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — Thousands of people incarcerated in state prisons will be counted in their home communities rather than in corrections facilities when Pennsylvania redraws its legislative maps, a major change that advocates hailed as the end of a racist policy.
The Legislative Reapportionment Commission voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution introduced by House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), who said it “makes no sense” to count people in communities where they have no long-term relationships or plans to remain.
The panel is charged with redrawing Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate maps every 10 years after the release of new population data by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Under the resolution passed Tuesday, Aug. 24, state prisoners will be counted at the address where they lived immediately prior to being sentenced if they are Pennsylvania residents. It excludes people who were not residents of the state prior to being sentenced as well as people serving life sentences.
“We cannot wait another 10 years,” McClinton said of the change. “The time to correct this injustice is now.”
Opponents call the practice prison gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, it has boosted the population of primarily white, rural districts where many of the state prisons are located at the expense of communities of color in areas including Philadelphia and Allegheny County.
More than 37,000 people are currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s state prisons. People of color are overrepresented inside these facilities: While less than 20% of Pennsylvania residents are Black or Hispanic, 56.2% of state prisoners are from one of those groups.
Mark Nordenberg — the chair of the reapportionment commission, who voted in favor of the resolution with the two Democratic members — said the decision was a difficult one, as the panel had trouble getting data from the Department of Corrections, and there were concerns about its quality.
“Neither the process nor the product that it produced is ideal,” he said.
But once being assured by the panel’s chief counsel that the members had the legal right to act, and after reviewing relevant laws and court rulings, Nordenberg said he did not think the commission should wait another 10 years to make the change.
“When a system holds and counts a person in one place but forces him or her on to vote in another, it does create a basic issue of fairness,” Nordenberg said, referencing a state law that allows people in state prisons serving time for a misdemeanor to vote in their home communities.
The practice, he continued, means votes in areas with state prisons “carry more weight than the votes cast in districts that do not include such institutions.”
The resolution does not affect the state’s congressional map, which will be drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature and approved by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. It also does not impact federal or county prisons.
Republicans on the panel expressed concerns about fairness and unequal treatment before voting against the measure.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said it seemed wrong to her that college students would be counted where they learn while incarcerated people would be counted in their home communities.
“I know [prisoners are not there] by their choice, but they really are because they committed a crime, and they’ve been convicted of a crime,” she said. “They lost their right to choose where they live.”
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said he was concerned about the legality of the resolution and believed the decision should be made by the entire legislature, not just by the reapportionment panel.
“It is clear that this is a fundamental policy change, and significant policy change requires, at minimum, the enactment through the deliberative legislative process,” he said.
The panel’s chief counsel, former Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Byer, said his analysis showed no constitutional or legal issues.
“Certainly a case has been made that the current practice does result in unfairness both to prisoners and residents of districts without state correctional institutions, and that unfairness would justify action by this commission if it chooses to take it,” Byer said.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.