Philly City Council has a new district map, but it still doesn’t address prison gerrymandering

(Miguel Martinez/Billy Penn)

(Miguel Martinez/Billy Penn)

Philadelphia City Council has unanimously passed a bill redrawing the districts that will determine for more than a decade which constituents its members serve.

But several significant complaints about the process by which the bill was passed remain unaddressed — and Council President Darrell Clarke said he’s leaving open the possibility that members might return to the map and make changes before its inaugural use in 2023 elections.

One of the common concerns about the map, which Philadelphians raised last month in the single public hearing on the subject, is prison gerrymandering — a term referring to a decision mapmakers may make to count an incarcerated person’s residence as the location of the prison, not the person’s original address.

There are two ways council members could have addressed it. For one, they could have drawn the map using publicly available data that state lawmakers already adjusted to count prisoners in their home districts. That would have added nearly 7,000 Philadelphians back into the city’s population, across all its districts.

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They also could have reallocated prisoners who are being counted as residents of the city-run jail complex on State Road, in the Sixth Council District. That would have required more effort on the city’s part, but it would have moved between 3,500 and 5,000 people out of the Sixth and into other districts — a change that would have necessitated adjusting some district boundaries to keep populations even.

Claire Shubik-Richards, who heads the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said she remains frustrated the council didn’t address the issue well before passing the map.

“I don’t know why it hasn’t happened,” she said. “There’s been enough time, there seems to be enough support. It’s a bit confounding, and it’s a disservice to every single community where people who are confined at State Road come from.”

During the approval process, Clarke acknowledged that the council hadn’t addressed prison gerrymandering — though he didn’t say why. In a statement, his office noted that the council is permitted to reopen already-passed bills and make changes, and said staff had begun contacting vendors who might be able to do prisoner reallocation.

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Clarke did not, however, address the other major concern that Philadelphians raised during the redistricting process: transparency.

The council president managed the map-drawing process almost entirely behind closed doors. He held private meetings with individual council members while finishing his draft, and took no public feedback until it was done.

On that point, Clarke didn’t make any promises for change.

Asked if there was a timeline for addressing prison gerrymandering, a spokesman for Clarke said Thursday evening that the council president “has made clear and on the record — several times in public meetings — that council plans to address the prison gerrymandering issue, which involves at least 7,000 individuals. Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

Pat Christmas, policy director at the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said he wasn’t especially surprised that the council unanimously passed the map without addressing transparency or pushing for more of it. Members had a vested interest in making sure the map was in place by their Feb. 12 deadline, so chosen because it marks six months since they received new census data: If they missed the deadline, their paychecks would be withheld.

Christmas thinks that, coupled with the fact that the map doesn’t make many major changes to the city’s previous, fairly well-regarded districts, led to the quick passage.

He plans to keep up the pressure to address prison gerrymandering.

“We’ll certainly be paying attention and having conversations with folks in City Hall,” Christmas said. “If they’re not inclined to go back and make this change, I think they’ll be hearing more from advocates, and more from residents.”

This story has been updated to include an additional comment from Council President Darrell Clarke’s spokesperson. 

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