April/May 2010

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  • Green states do not disenfranchise.
  • Yellow states only disenfranchise those who are actually in prison.
  • Purple states also disenfranchise felons who are out on parole.
  • Red states disenfranchise prisoners who are on parole or probation.
  • Orange states restrict the rights of some to vote even after they have completed their sentences.
(Source: The Sentencing Project)
News and Opinion

Political Prisoners in the United States?
Depoliticizing our criminal system

-- Dr. Daniel E. Loeb

Does the United States actually have political prisoners?

Probably not by the strict definition of the term: people incarcerated for their political beliefs. But there are millions of American citizens in the criminal justice system who are pawns in our political system. The criminalization of an activity and the pursuit, arrest and incarceration of people engaged in those activities have political ramifications which, in turn, can tempt lawmakers to make decisions which favor their own political viewpoints.

Voter Suppression

For example, in 2000 the Florida legislature proposed a bill that would have increased the jail sentence from 365 days to 366 days for anyone convicted of cashing two welfare checks after gaining employment. We all agree that welfare fraud is a crime which should be eliminated, but if the threat of 365 days in prison is not a sufficient deterrent, would one more day make any difference? If not, then what was the purpose of adding one more day? The extra day turns the crime into a felony, and Florida strips felons of their right to vote. The Republican-dominated Florida legislator wanted to thereby strip the voting rights from a group of predominately Democratic voters.

Stripping voting rights from criminals "serves no practical or philosophical purpose," according to criminologist James Wilson. It is hard to imagine that the loss of one’s vote would deter anyone from a life of crime. Furthermore, permanently barring someone from voting means that these citizens will never fully reenter society even after doing their time. I remember canvassing before Super Tuesday in a run-down neighborhood of Wilmington, Delaware to encourage the community to get out and vote for Obama. It was sad to see people sheepishly admit that they could not vote and know there was nothing that could be done for them. Labeling someone as an outsider permanently prevents a sense of closure. If someone feels down and out and wants to implement change in society, don't we want them to do so with their vote, and not with a gun or a knife?

The current system tempts legislators who are well aware of the demographical relationships between certain crimes and the political affiliations of economic classes and ethnic groups. According to the The Sentencing Project:

  • 5,300,000 Americans have currently lost their voting rights as a result of a conviction.
  • Of these, about 4,600,000 are men and 700,000 are women.
  • 1,400,000 African American men are disenfranchised, representing 13% of black men, a rate seven times the national average.
  • In states like Florida which permanently disenfranchise ex-offenders, it is projected that 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.

The goal of our justice system should be to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, and promote the general Welfare". It should not be perverted into The goal of our justice system should be to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, and promote the general Welfare". It should not be perverted into a tool to suppress the vote of those we disagree with.

The Enumeration of Prisoners

What could be worse that suppressing someone's right to vote?

Stealing their right to vote and attributing it to someone else. That is literally what happens throughout the United States (except Vermont and Maine). According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the census counts prisoners as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated, though they are barred from voting in 48 states and return to their homes after being released. The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence. Prisons are disproportionately built in rural areas but most incarcerated people call urban areas home. Counting prisoners in the wrong place results in a systematic transfer of population and political clout from urban to rural areas.

New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman (D-New York City) explained the situation in a letter to the Department of Commerce:

We are writing to urge the United States Census Bureau to collect the home addresses of all incarcerated persons in the 2010 Census. [...] Counting people in prison at their pre-incarceration address is essential for compliance with the “One Person, One Vote” rulings of the Supreme Court, which require that legislative districts at every level of government contain equal numbers of residents in order to ensure fair and equal representation for all. [...]
Currently, the Census Bureau includes everyone housed in federal, state, and local prisons in its count of the general population of the Census block that contains the prison. State laws, however, often define residence as the place where one voluntarily lives. Many states also have constitutional clauses or election law statutes that explicitly declare that incarceration does not change a residence. Prisoners therefore remain legal residents of their pre-incarceration addresses, and in situations where they retain voting rights, they send absentee ballots to their home districts. Unfortunately, the current census methodology opts to disregard this, instead counting a significant proportion of our national population in the wrong place. Crediting the population of prisoners to the Census block where they are temporarily and involuntarily held creates electoral inequities at all levels of government.
In our letter, we [the New York State Legislature] asked the Census Bureau to permanently eliminate this problem by counting people in prison as residents of their home addresses. [...]

A Texas congressional district is based on a population which includes 12% prisoners. Thus, 88 residents of that district carry the same political clout as 100 voters in any other district.

In Pennsylvania, 40% of the state's prisoners are from the city of Philadelphia, but 99% of prisoners are incarcerated outside of that site. As a result, eight rural Pennsylvania State House districts meet the state’s population requirements for separate districts (minimum 57,473, maximum 63,523) only by padding out their voting population with 5.5% to 7.5% urban convicts. As the prison population continues to grow in Pennsylvania, we can only expect that this problem will become more pronounced.

The number of state prisoners in Pennsylvania grew from 8,112 in 1980 to 36,614 in 2000.

In local elections the problem is more extreme since a large prison can represent a large percentage of the population of a small district. According to the New York Times, disenfranchised prisoners from the Anamosa State Penitentiary (formerly known as the Iowa Men's Reformatory) made up 96% of the population of the 2nd Ward of Anamosa, Iowa.

Danny R. Young, a 53-year-old backhoe operator for Jones County in eastern Iowa, was elected to the Anamosa City Council with a total of two votes — both write-ins, from his wife and a neighbor.
Wards of Anamosa, Iowa
Courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.
While the Census Bureau says Mr. Young’s ward has roughly the same population as the city’s three others, or about 1,400 people, his constituents wield about 25 times more political clout.
That is because his ward includes 1,300 inmates housed in Iowa’s largest penitentiary — none of whom can vote. Only 58 of the people who live in Ward 2 are non-prisoners. That discrepancy has made Anamosa a symbol for a national campaign to change the way the Census Bureau counts prison inmates.

Fortunately, the census bureau has become more attentive to the situation. Census Director Robert Groves has agreed to identify which census blocks contain group quarters such as correctional facilities early enough so that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to draw fair districts.

The advocates had earlier urged the Census to determine the home addresses of incarcerated people and count them there, but since the 2010 Census is already underway it is far too late to change that. The interim solution of releasing accelerated data identifying prison populations will assist governments that wish to make their own adjustments for state and local redistricting. Legislation to make such adjustments is currently pending in New York, Illinois, Florida, Oregon, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Maryland. State Senator Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia) is considering similar legislation in Pennsylvania.

The number of state prisoners in Pennsylvania grew from 8,112 in 1980 to 36,614 in 2000.

The Census Bureau should be commended for taking action. "For too long, communities with large prisons have received greater representation in government on the backs of people who have no voting rights in the prison community," said Brenda Wright, director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a research and advocacy organization. "The Census Bureau's new data will greatly assist states and localities in correcting this injustice."

Furthermore, Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) has introduced a bill to correct this injustice once and for all. His bill would require the U.S. Census, starting with the 2020 Census, to count incarcerated people as residents of their pre-incarceration addresses.

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