ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Urban lawmakers across the country say their counterparts in rural areas have gotten an unfair advantage from an unlikely group: prisoners.
Now, lawmakers in Maryland are changing that by having inmates counted as residents of where they last lived — typically urban centers — not the rural areas where they're often imprisoned. Nine other states are considering similar legislation. Advocates say the way inmates are tallied when redrawing election maps has skewed how people in all areas are represented in Congress, legislatures and other elected offices.
The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland pushed hard this year to pass the first law in the country to count inmates as residents of their last address before their prison cell. The measure was approved with census numbers on the way — the first time data on inmates will be delivered to states before districts are drawn. Supporters say the new law gives more of a voice to urban areas with higher minority populations, but opponents call the change a power grab.
Proponents also hope it can change places like rural Somerset County, where no black candidate has been elected to county office even though 40 percent of residents are African-American. One Somerset district was designed to have the majority of residents be minorities after a Voting Rights Act lawsuit. But local leaders with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say the numbers are distorted because many blacks counted as residents are prisoners who can't vote.
Craig Mathies Sr., an African-American pastor, said he will likely run for a Somerset County commissioner seat this year. Mathies said the current system has allowed local elected officials to avoid reaching out to minorities in their district to see what their concerns and interests were.
"I don't have a problem expressing my opinions, but there are those that feel they are irrelevant because of their socio-economic status," Mathies said. "They pay taxes too, so they need a voice as well."
Lawmakers in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Texas, Rhode Island and Wisconsin have proposed changes similar to the Maryland law, according to Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative.
Texas, along with parts of Florida and New York, would need Justice Department approval under the Voting Rights Act for any new districts that are drawn. Brenda Wright, a director with the research and advocacy organization Demos, said laws like Maryland's would generally help states that need that approval because it would give more influence to minority communities, not less.
New York Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries says "inmate-based gerrymandering" there has given enough power to rural parts of New York to kill bills supported by the majority of residents elsewhere.
Tallying inmates as residents of their prisons, Jeffries says, has given conservative regions enough votes to kill bills to strengthen rent protections for low and moderate income tenants, reform the criminal justice system and enhance rights for low wage farm workers.
"This has directly permitted conservative reactionary forces to maintain outsized influence in New York state government and allowed them to stop progressive pieces of legislation in many areas from becoming law," Jeffries said.
However, Maryland House Republican whip Chris Shank, whose rural Washington County district is home to three prisons with an inmate population of roughly 6,300, said Maryland's law will leave communities like his with fewer representatives and give even more to Baltimore.
"It's blatantly untrue to say the prisoners don't have an impact on our district," Shank said. "They most certainly impact our medical resources based on trips to hospitals and dentists' offices. They have a tremendous impact on our judicial system, the number of court filings, the workload of our state attorney's office."
Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, and Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George's, who sponsored the new Maryland law, say it is a civil rights issue. Pena-Melnyk estimated that 68 percent of Maryland's prison population, which averages 27,000 inmates a year according to legislative documents, lived in Baltimore before incarceration.
Pugh said it was an issue of fairness that will ensure equal representation in Congress, the General Assembly and local governments. The law, which was signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley last month, does not change how government dollars are allocated, only how voting lines are drawn.
"It is unfair for prisoners to be counted as if they walk around, interact with people in a community when they're in prison," Pugh said.
On the Net:
Prison Policy Initiative: http://www.prisonpolicy.org
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