Pa. redistricting commission to count people in prison at their old home, not in their cell

The measure passed in a 3-2 vote after two hours of calm, but pointed, debate.

By: - August 24, 2021 3:26 pm

House Minority LeaderJoanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Legislative Reapportionment Commission meeting on August 24, 2021. (Courtesy of House Democrats)

When drawing state legislative lines, Pennsylvania will count tens of thousands of people locked up in state prisons not in their cell, but at their previous home address before they were incarcerated.

This will effectively mark a small, but meaningful, shift in population from the Pennsylvania countryside to its cities, increasing urban representation while reducing rural representation.

The measure, sponsored by House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, passed in a 3-2 vote after two hours of calm, but pointed, debate by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s two Republican and two Democratic members. 

The commission is rounded out by an independent chair, former University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg. Together, they are charged with using the state’s census data to redraw all 253 legislative districts, influencing the balance of power in Harrisburg for the next decade.

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McClinton and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny voted for the policy. The two Republican legislative floor leaders — Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, of Westmoreland County, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, of Centre County — voted no.

Nordenberg, as the chair, was the tie-breaking vote for the policy to pass. It was first in a string of tough and impactful decisions he’ll be called to make as chair.

“I regret that the first substantive decision is leaving two commissioners feeling they’ve won and two commissioners feeling they’ve lost,” Nordenberg said.

McClinton, who had unsuccessfully pushed legislation in the state House to make a similar change, said her resolution would ensure people in prisons have proper representation.

McClinton said she and some of her fellow Philadelphia representatives are used to taking calls from incarcerated individuals — who do not live in her district — and their families, who do live in the district, asking for help, even though those serving time are not constituents, and do not vote for them.

“It is worth the time and the effort to ensure equal elections, and equally weighted votes,” McClinton said.

The U.S. Census data counts prisoners as living at prison if they’ve spent the majority of the previous year in their cell.

But McClinton’s resolution will instead take Pennsylvania’s 37,000 state prisoners and reallocate them to their address before they were imprisoned. 

People in prison in Pennsylvania prisons who did not live in Pennsylvania won’t count at all in state legislative redistricting. And people without a home will be counted where they “regularly stayed or regularly received services.”

Finally, the approximately 5,100 people serving life sentences will continue to be counted as living at the prison.

For the last few redistricting cycles, the data the commission used counted prisoners as living in their cell. 

The resolution claims that the practice “artificially inflates the population count of districts where prisons are located and artificially reduces the population count of districts from which the inmates came.” 

Advocates coined the phrase “prison gerrymandering” to describe the practice, referencing the way district lines are drawn for political gain.

The move will likely have the biggest impact on the 203-member state House, experts say, whose districts are 64,000 people each. 

A 2019 study by two Villanova University professors found that when prisoners were reallocated to their home district, four districts became too small, and four too big. 

Three of the four districts made too small were rural districts, and three of the four made too big were urban, majority-minority districts.

The resolution, the study’s co-author, Brianna Remster, told the Capital-Star, was “a big step towards equalizing power between rural and urban areas, especially minority representation.”

The resolution still won’t impact how the state counts 8,500 federal prisoners, according to the most recent federal data, or the approximately 37,000 people in county jails, according to a 2018 estimate by the Prison Policy Institute.

Republicans pushed back on the move, claiming they had legal concerns. They also argued that it was inconsistent with how the Census tracks other group settings.

College students are counted in their dorms, for instance, and military personnel at their barracks.

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“I do think that there are inconsistencies,” Ward said. “We’re doing prisoners, we’re not doing college students. Why aren’t we doing college students?”

“I know [prisoners] are there not by their choice — but they really are, because they committed a crime,” Ward added. “They were convicted of a crime, so they lost their right to choose where they live.”

Ward added that she predicted the decision would likely end up in court.

Nordenberg didn’t discount a legal challenge, but seemed confident in the decision’s legal footing.

“These days, you can’t tell what direction a legal challenge might come,” Nordenberg told the Capital-Star. “If you worry too much about that, you can’t get anything done.”

He added he was originally skeptical of the data change when McClinton brought it to him in a May meeting, but Nordenberg’s mind changed as he looked deeper into the issue.

Ward, and Benninghoff added they had concerns about a delay in formalizing the adjusted census data that distributed prisoners back to their home district.

The Legislative Data Processing Center, which is overseeing the census data, told the commission the move will likely add four to five weeks before finalized redistricting data is ready. 

Remster, who used the Department of Corrections data in her studies, didn’t share their concerns.

“I hope it does not take that long. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just matching addresses to blocks,” Remster said.

Prison populations can be a significant boost for some small, shrinking rural communities. Nearly one-third of the population of Forest County, in northwestern Pennsylvania, is made up of prisoners at SCI-Forest, according to the most recent state prison statistics.

While predominantly in rural locations, prison populations haven’t only aided Republicans. Many prisons are located in ancestrally Democratic coal country, and kept those districts small and centered on shrinking Democratic municipalities.

Removing incarcerated individuals will then force mappers to move boundaries even further into areas likely more favorable to Republicans.

McClinton, however, pushed back on any partisan frame on the issue.

“I would not narrate it as being helped,” McClinton said. “This is a process that has happened up until this point. So it’s not a help, it’s how it was. But it’s not like that any further.”

Still, the shift of thousands of people will only exacerbate the census trends, which saw Pennsylvania’s urban areas grow, and rural areas shrink.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.