Earlier this week, a coalition of state and local civil rights organizations called on the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commissions to end prison gerrymandering. Commission members are expected to hold a critical vote on the issue Thursday.
Prison gerrymandering is the longstanding practice of allocating state prison inmates to their prison locations rather than their home communities when drawing congressional and state legislative district maps.
In a letter to the commissions, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the NAACP, and others expressed grave concern about the political power grab because it predominantly impacts communities of color due to the overrepresentation of people of Black and Brown people in prison.
The overwhelming majority of Colorado prisons are located in rural areas, while most inmates in those prisons were convicted in urban areas along the Front Range. Prison gerrymandering provides rural communities with an unearned political benefit by padding their districts with the incarcerated population at the expense of inmates’ home communities.
Incarcerated people are not represented by elected officials in the districts where they are incarcerated. They also do not vote, work, pay taxes, worship, or engage in other community activities in those districts. More than 95% of Colorado prisoners will be released, and while redistricting only occurs every 10 years, the average length of stay in prison is less than four years for men and less than two years for women. Inmates are also frequently transferred between different prison facilities.
The practice of padding political districts with incarcerated populations, when incarcerated people are not represented by elected officials in the district where they are incarcerated further perpetuates distorting effects on accuracy and reliability of the data for redistricting creating prison gerrymandering.
This transfer of political power from the urban communities to the rural communities affects liberal and conservative communities alike. Civic engagement is the responsibility of all Coloradans, and what we know is, formerly incarcerated people who engage civically are anchored in their communities.
The redistricting commissions can improve the accuracy of district maps by adopting the practice used by the U.S. Armed Forces. It allocates service members based on their place of residency and not the location of their current assignment.
This idea was thoroughly vetted in the Legislature last year in the form of HB20-1010, which passed with bipartisan support and faced no opposition from community groups, elected officials, or local governments. Unfortunately, the courts determined the Legislature did not have the authority to reallocate prisoners to their permanent places of residence. But the redistricting commissions do, and they should exercise it.
Colorado HB19-1266, a bipartisan bill, restored voting rights to people on parole. Therefore, once these individuals return to their communities, whether on parole or not, they are eligible to register to vote and vote. So, it stands to reason that using population data that does not reflect incarcerated people at their home address, in their community, leads to the underrepresentation of that community. And that impact is felt until the next US Census, up to a full decade.
Fair and representative government is a tenet that all can agree is crucial to our democracy.
The tenets of fair elections, representative government, and the opportunity for full civic engagement by all citizens can only be assured by ending a redistricting process that has historically been plagued with intentional and unintentional efforts to divide Black and Brown communities in order to dilute their political influence. Prison gerrymandering is just one more example. A full reversal on this sordid legacy is in hands of the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commissions; and the mandate is clear: the policy of prison gerrymandering must end.
Otherwise, the redistricting process is nothing more than an exercise that will continue to undermine the bedrock principles of equal representation, fair elections, representative government, and the opportunity for full civic engagement by all citizens, for another decade.
The only other option that would align principles with practice would be to allow people in prison to vote!
Juston Cooper is deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a non-profit organization whose mission is to eliminate the overuse of the criminal justice system and advance community health and safety.