Prison Communities: Representation is Not Created Equal
Bill would end gerrymandering in sparsely populated communities
Brian Stimson of The Skanner
March 18, 2009
Rep. Chip Shields hopes to bring fairness to the way prisoners are counted in Oregon.
Currently, prisoners are counted as residents of the correctional institution in which they are serving time, inflating population statistics of the mostly rural communities in which prisons exist. This population count inaccurately skews congressional representation in sparsely populated areas, says Shields.
This bill would rectify that inconsistency as Oregon prepares to undergo a congressional and legislative redistricting process.
Shields’ bill would require the Department of Corrections to list an offender’s residence as the address they were living when they were arrested.
This requirement would more accurately reflect congressional and legislative representation across the state.
“They don’t count them as residents of their home communities,” Shields said. “They count them as residents of communities in which they are incarcerated. This gives more political power to citizens that happen to live next to a correctional institution.”
While a person is incarcerated, they do not have voting rights in Oregon. Once an offender is released from prison in this state, their voting rights are then restored. Shields said many people released from prison return to their home communities – as dictated by state law.
The Oregon House Rules Committee held its first public hearing on the bill Monday, where Shields testified that he has received bipartisan support on a bill that is aimed at restoring fairness. He is also personally affected by the bill – of the top three home zip codes for offenders, two of those zip codes are in Shields’ district.
Republican Rep. Bob Jenson said he found the bill to be the “antithesis of fairness.”
“The overwhelming majority of people who are incarcerated come out of the most populace part of the state,” he said. “Particularly Multnomah County.”
Jenson said he opposed the bill because it could cost the Republican Party seats in the House – possibly his own.
“It would increase the division between the two parties in this chamber by one vote. One person,” he said. “This would obviously cause me great concern.”
Jenson represents Pendleton, Ore., home to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, a 1,600-bed prison that is the city’s fourth largest employer.
This issue is not just a regional one. The Prison Policy Initiative has documented the Census Bureau’s counting of prisoners as members of a community. They found that in New York in the 1990s, two out of every three people to move to upstate New York was a prisoner. They say this has created districts that would otherwise be illegal under federal law.
During the Rules Committee testimony, Mike Gower, assistant director of operations for the Department of Corrections, said the language defining a residence could be difficult.
“Determining permanent residence is very difficult,” he said. “Few inmates are incarcerated from and returned to the same address. An inmate may be living in rental property … and many inmates are homeless at the time of their arrest.”
He said released offenders must return to their county of arrest unless they require a waiver to live elsewhere. About 52 percent of released offenders have no home to go to and must be provided with emergency housing. Gower’s concern was mainly about language in the bill that required the department to establish a “permanent” address for inmates – despite the fact that inmates have addresses assigned to them upon intake into the system.
Janice Thompson, the executive director of Democracy Reform Oregon, said the system is unfair to voters, and House Bill 2930 would restore fairness to the system.
“It counts people where they can vote,” she said. “You don’t count people where they can’t vote.”
She said she has researched other states and found that in some prison communities, there is a huge imbalance in city or county level representation.
“In (Anamosa) Iowa, there’s a prison in one ward where about 50 voters are represented by one city council member, compared to 1,500 in another,” she said.
Rep. Chris Edwards, a Democrat who represents a district encompassing west Eugene, said he thought the implications on local races was interesting.
“As somebody whose district will be the recipient of a prison soon, I hadn’t thought about the local level and how much difference that could make in a county commission race where we have 5 county commissioners and X number of (prisoners) concentrated in one area,” he said. “The effect would certainly be more profound. Not just a shift in one area of the state to another, but actually people that potentially never resided in the county at all. It seems even more obtuse to me.”