End of ‘prison gerrymandering’ means changes to redistricting

Political mapmakers told to count inmates where they had lived, not in towns where they are jailed.

The interior of a New Jersey prison

A New Jersey prison is pictured in a file photo. (NJ Spotlight)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Before work can begin on redrawing New Jersey’s legislative and congressional districts based on the 2020 census counts, the state must do its own reapportioning of about 38,000 people incarcerated in correctional facilities.

This is the first time New Jersey is counting prisoners as residents of the communities where they were living and, presumably, plan to rejoin on release, rather than counting them as residents of where they are incarcerated for the constitutionally mandated process of creating districts of roughly equal numbers of residents to then elect representatives to the Legislature and Congress. New Jersey is now one of 13 states that passed laws ending the practice of “prison gerrymandering,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Pennsylvania’s legislative redistricting commission voted to do so, as well.

report released Monday by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank, explained the rationale behind the change. “With prison gerrymandering, communities where prisons and jails were built receive outsize representation based on their incarcerated population. Conversely, communities that have been disproportionately harmed by mass incarceration have had their populations artificially lowered by their incarcerated population, even though that population will inevitably require services, infrastructure, and representation upon their return,” the group wrote.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the change into law for congressional redistricting less than two weeks ago, mirroring the change for legislative redistricting he signed in early 2020. The new law took effect immediately. The U.S. Census Bureau released the state’s population counts by race, ethnicity and small geographies to enable the state to begin remapping districts. But the administration is not recognizing that as the official release and will only use the data the bureau puts out later this month — exactly the same information but in an easier-to-use format — as the redistricting data.

The census data counts the incarcerated as “group quarters” population in the municipalities and block groups where the jails, prisons and similar facilities are located. State officials must now reallocate those people to the communities where they lived prior to incarceration for the redistricting effort. That will, at the same time, reduce the populations of the places where the prisons are located.

A look at the process

Figuring out where population counts will drop is relatively easy, by looking at the locations of penal facilities. The NJPP report notes that roughly half the population of Maurice River in Cumberland County, or 3,034 people, were incarcerated in 2020 and those individuals will wind up being counted elsewhere for the purpose of redistricting. Both Bayside State Prison and the Southern State Correctional Facility are located in the township.

“For the purposes of redistricting, the township’s population was nearly doubled, inflating its political representation at the expense of the communities where the people who are incarcerated came from originally,” wrote Peter Chen in the NJPP report.

Under the new laws, the state Department of Corrections needs to tell the secretary of state the former street address, race and ethnicity of all those incarcerated, as well as whether each person was age 18 or older. All this information is used for redistricting purposes and included in the census data released on Aug. 12. The law required the secretary of state to request this information for federal prisons.

The secretary of state will then use that information to recalculate population counts where appropriate and give that data to the redistricting commissions, which will use it to create new maps reflecting legislative and congressional districts with roughly the same populations.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Potential for big impact in some places

Because the state has not yet provided data on the prior residences of the incarcerated, it’s unknown exactly the impact the law change will have on redistricting. But it’s clear the new law will have an outsized impact on a few state and congressional districts as they are currently drawn.

For instance, the southernmost 2nd Congressional District already has the smallest population of the state’s dozen districts. Removing nearly 9,200 residents from that count and reallocating them to their former addresses would further shrink that size. Given New Jersey’s 2020 population of 9.2 million, each district should wind up representing about 774,000 residents. Before reallocation, the 2nd District’s population was less than 732,000.

With about 756,000 residents, the neighboring 3rd Congressional District is also undersized. It will also have a significant number of people reallocated — about 7,500.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Republican, represents the 2nd, while Democrat Andy Kim represents the 3rd. Last year, Democrats targeted Van Drew, who was elected as a Democrat in the 2018 midterm election, and Republicans already are running ads against Kim, who flipped the district from red to blue that same year. This could give both parties’ teams on the commission fodder as they create maps.

In north Jersey, the 10th Congressional District encompassing parts of Newark and Jersey City will have the most residents reallocated, about 9,700, but it will have less of an impact because the district grew the most over the last decade, by close to 30% to 816,000 people.

At the state level, the NJPP report cites five districts as most impacted because 1% or more of their total population was incarcerated. The most significant of those is the 29th Legislative District in Newark, where Northern State Prison is located and nearly 4% of the population — or more than 9,300 people — was incarcerated.

Still, the large growth in Newark, the state’s largest city, over the last decade drove up the population in the 29th by almost 21% and its unaltered census count of 249,000 is higher than the average 232,000 for a legislative district.

There might be a greater impact in a legislative district like the 12th in central New Jersey where the population declined by 2% to about 231,000, but 6,650 people will need to be reallocated to their former residences.

Total population is a major consideration, but not the only one, for the commissions doing the remapping. And they don’t necessarily need to adhere to the current boundaries as closely as possible. Rather, they can seek to base districts around like “communities of interest,” including racial and ethnic groups.

When the mapmaking will begin officially in New Jersey is still unknown. The U.S. Census Bureau has said it will re-release the Aug. 12 data in a somewhat different format to states by Sept. 30. That’s the data the Murphy administration is going to consider official. Once the state gets it, it has seven days to reallocate the incarcerated populations and provide the counts to the commissions.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal