Committee uncertain over prison based head count

Kenneth J. Cooper | 6/28/2011, 11:12 p.m.

The chairmen of the state Joint Committee on Redistricting are non-committal about drawing new legislative districts that moderate what critics call “prison-based gerrymandering.”

State Rep. Michael J. Moran of Brighton and state Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg of Northampton, both Democrats, said the committee is considering proposed strategies for limiting distortions in voters’ power as a result of U.S. Census Bureau counting prison and jail inmates where they are incarcerated rather than where they last lived.

Because African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in prisons and jails, critics argue, the census practice of counting them there reduces the political power of voters the voting power of their home communities.

The state constitution requires the use of census data in redistricting, but critics have urged the committee to draw more people into prison-based districts and fewer into ones where large numbers of inmates last lived, their legal residence under state law.

Population counts in political districts can vary as much as 5 percent above or below what would be an exactly equal number of residents in each one.

“This is a new issue for us,” Rosenberg said before a forum on “prison-based gerrymandering” at the Mattapan Public Library last week. “There are people who have been studying it. We’re trying to get our heads around it.”

“This go around,” Moran said during the forum, “it is going to be very difficult for us to count prisoners where their legal residence is” because of the state constitution and the way census data is collected.

Moran added that is “not to say we can’t change that 10 years from now ...”

Michael Curry, new president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, looked ahead to the next round of redistricting in 2021 so there would be adequate time to mount a lobbying campaign to get a constitutional amendment through the Legislature and approved by voters.

“We should have started this fight a long time ago, and it should have been a collaborative fight communitywide to figure out how to get this done through the Legislature,” Curry said. “So we’ve missed the boat and didn’t recognize the need to have that done for this census count.”

Curry continued, “The challenge for us now, looking at a decade from now, is to be more productive in this next ten years to lay the foundation to get that legislation passed, to get a resolution that we can now count those people where they live.”

The forum, titled “Counting Inmates in the Wrong Place: Black Community Losing Power,” was sponsored by the Center for Church and Prison.

“We believe the issue at hand needs to be approached collaboratively,” said Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, the center’s director.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston and state Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera of Springfield are vice chairs of the redistricting committee. Representatives Byron Rushing from the South End and Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester are members. All are Democrats.