Montana to change way prisoners are counted
Panel hopes change will help redistricting, make legislative districts more fair
Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)
The Montana Districting and Apportionment commission is moving forward with its plan to change how incarcerated people in the state are counted for the purposes of legislative redistricting, voting to send out a request for proposals to vendors who may be able to do the necessary analysis in a meeting earlier this month.
The commissioners hope to see this process complete before they begin the decennial task of drawing state legislative districts based on new U.S. Census data, said Maylinn Smith, an attorney and former tribal judge who chairs the five-person panel. The new districts will take effect in the 2024 election cycle.
“We need that information in order to do the redistricting,” she said.
The body is seeking a contractor to adjust census data for around 3,000 state inmates across seven facilities, according to the RFP, and set aside $10,000 to get it done.
The reallocation is meant to address what’s often called prison gerrymandering — a phenomenon baked into U.S. Census Bureau practice by which legislative districts with large prison populations have disproportionate political power while districts with constituents who are disproportionately represented in prisons lose political power.
In short, the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of a prison, even though they can’t vote in that district (if at all), rather than of the neighborhoods where they lived before. For example, research on the subject has highlighted states like Pennsylvania: The prison population pulls disproportionately from the Philadelphia urban core, but the prisons themselves are often in rural areas. If those incarcerated at the prisons were counted in the Census at their last known home address, it’s possible that the urban core might gain another district.
In Montana, where indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the prison system, this practice can mean the dilution of the Native American vote, advocates say, especially given the existing difficulties of conducting the Census on tribal land. Native Americans make up 20% of incarcerated men and 30% of incarcerated women in Montana, compared to less than 10% of the state’s population as a whole, said Wesley Furlong, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who testified before the redistricting commission.
“Because of this disproportionate rate of incarceration, native and tribal communities will be disproportionately underrepresented without reallocation,” he said.
Some states have adopted laws stipulating that incarcerated people are to be counted at their last home addresses for redistricting. Montana is not one of them, though the Districting and Apportionment Commission resolved early in this year’s redistricting process to take on the issue.
However, it won’t be straightforward. The Montana Department of Corrections is not required to track the last-known addresses of state prisoners, and only has residences on file for about a third of the population.
“The residential address information in (MDC’s) offender management system is derived from any address information collected from individuals who have previously been under probation or parole supervision in the community and might be old or incomplete for the purposes of reallocation,” the RFP reads.
The commission also has zero data on federal inmates. But it’s nonetheless held that even a partial reallocation would be better than none at all.
And it’s hoping to lay the groundwork for more efficient reallocation moving forward. Smith said the body is workshopping possible legislation that would formalize prisoner reallocation in Montana and require MDC to track last-known addresses upon intake.
The commission set an April 1, 2022 deadline for a contractor to complete the work.
“We need that adjusted census data for us to draw districts, for the public to draw districts, and to hold hearings on those districts,” said Commissioner Kendra Miller, one of the body’s two Democrats. “This is a time sensitive project.”
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