States were incredibly successful at reallocating incarcerated people to their home addresses in 2020: A review of the data

Originally published in the Prison Policy Initiative blog.
We explore state redistricting reports to show that, despite facing immense challenges, states were remarkably successful ending prison gerrymandering after the 2020 Census.

by Mike Wessler and Aleks Kajstura, June 10, 2024

During the 2020 redistricting cycle, more than a dozen states took it upon themselves to do what the Census Bureau has refused: end prison gerrymandering. Through their redistricting process, they worked to unwind the flawed way the Bureau counts incarcerated people — as residents of a prison cell — and instead count them where they actually live, creating legislative districts that more accurately reflect actual resident populations.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of a prison cell rather than at their true communities. When states then use Census data during their redistricting process, they artificially inflate the population of prison communities and give them a larger voice in government.

With such rapid growth in the movement to address prison gerrymandering, it is natural to wonder: How successful were these states? How many people were they able to count at their home addresses?

It is an important question with huge implications; 19 states are already poised to adjust their redistricting data to address prison gerrymandering in the 2030 redistricting cycle. These questions can help states evaluate how they can do better during the 2030 redistricting cycle. It can guide states that haven’t yet adopted anti-prison gerrymandering laws but are considering them. Finally, it can illustrate how states are limited in their ability to solve this problem in ways the Census Bureau is not.

To answer these questions, we reviewed redistricting reports and data from 13 states that addressed prison gerrymandering after the 2020 census to understand how many people in state prisons they attempted to count in their home communities and how many they were able to reallocate successfully.

Perfection isn’t possible, so it’s not the goal

Before diving into our analysis, it is important to remember that it is impossible and unrealistic for states to successfully reallocate everyone in their prisons to their home communities.

There are three primary reasons why a state can’t count an incarcerated person at their home address:

  1. The person’s last address is in a different state: States don’t have the power to reallocate people across state lines, so they cannot count people from out of state in their home community.
  2. The state has decided not to reallocate an incarcerated person for a policy-based reason: Unfortunately, some states have implemented arbitrary limitations on their reforms by excluding certain incarcerated people from being counted in their home communities. For example, Rhode Island did the mapping work for all people incarcerated in the state correctional facilities. However, it chose to count incarcerated people with more than two years left on their sentence at the prison location in the redistricting data. While we and other organizations think this is misguided, it is the choice policymakers have made, so redistricting staff could not count them in their home community.
  3. Erroneous or missing data: State redistricting officials often rely on their Department of Corrections (DOC) to get address data for incarcerated people. Generally, that data contains everything they need to implement their reforms. However, sometimes data is missing or erroneous. Apart from typos and other record-keeping errors in home address data, there are a few situations where home addresses are missing altogether. For example, if an incarcerated person indicated they were unhoused before coming to prison, the DOC will likely leave the address field blank or note “homeless.” This may be an appropriate response for prison staff, but it creates problems for redistricting officials.
  4. While there are some steps redistricting officials can take to reduce this number, it often takes time, which is something they don’t have much of.

These limitations make it impossible for a state to reallocate 100% of people in its prisons to their home communities, so when they evaluate their success, they shouldn’t grade themselves against perfection. Instead, they should ask themselves: “Of the people it was possible to reallocate, how many did we reallocate?”

How did states do?

For our analysis, we looked at two key numbers:

  1. The state’s success rate for reallocating people that it was possible to count at home.
  2. The total percentage of people in state prisons counted at their home address.

Our analysis:

shows that most states did remarkably well. This is noteworthy because 2020 was a notoriously difficult redistricting cycle, in which Census data was delayed, and many states adopted prison gerrymandering reform laws late in the decade.

Of the 13 states we analyzed, 10 published their methodology. Nine out of 10 were able to reallocate at least 80% of people with addresses that met the states’ criteria, with Nevada being the lone exception. Impressively, California successfully mapped every address that it attempted.

StateSuccess rate for reallocating people who’s address met the state’s criteriaPercentage of people in state prisons successfully counted at their home address
New Jersey95.3%89.5%
New York91.9%91.9%
PennsylvaniaState did not publish methodology60.6%
Rhode Island83.1%41.0%
VirginiaState did not publish methodology88.2%
WashingtonState did not publish methodology91.4%

States were so successful that even in two of the three states where we could not fully analyze the success rate because they didn’t publish their methodology — Virginia and Washington — we can tell that roughly 90% of their total state prison population was successfully reallocated to their home communities. Importantly, like Rhode Island (which we explained above), Pennsylvania also made a policy choice to exclude certain incarcerated people from these reforms, instantly lowering the portion of its prison population that could be counted at home.

Getting to 100%

While states have done a remarkable job implementing these reforms, every incarcerated person should be counted in their home communities for redistricting purposes. What can government officials do to accomplish this?

  1. Start collecting, assessing, and cleaning data early: Getting good data from the Department of Corrections is critical to successfully implementing reforms. That’s why state redistricting officials should work with that agency now to ensure it is collecting the data they’ll need during the next redistricting cycle. Similarly, states that haven’t yet addressed prison gerrymandering should adopt and implement policies to do so now. This will ensure prisons collect and maintain high-quality address data for people they incarcerate.
  2. Don’t adopt arbitrary limitations on reforms: When adopting anti-prison gerrymandering reforms, states should include all incarcerated people, regardless of the length of their sentence. Even if a person is likely to spend decades behind bars, they’re still not a resident of the legislative district that contains the prison
  1. — they don’t have ties to that community, they don’t call it home, and if they have a problem that they want lawmakers to fix they’re not likely to call the legislator who represents the prison but rather the elected officials from their home community — so the town containing the prison shouldn’t get an outsized voice in government simply because the facility happens to be located there.
  2. The Census Bureau must change its policies: Even if states do everything in their power to address prison gerrymandering, there will still be some incarcerated people that they can’t count in their home districts, most frequently those who come from different states. Similarly, but not covered in this analysis, if a state contains a federal prison, redistricting officials cannot reallocate those incarcerated people to their home communities. The Census Bureau is the only government entity with the power to address this problem completely and across state lines.

This analysis shows that states have been incredibly successful in implementing reforms to address prison gerrymandering. History suggests that if the Census Bureau fails to resolve this problem, states will do even better during the 2030 redistricting cycle. This should give confidence to places considering similar reforms and motivate them to take action now.

Ultimately, though, to fully address prison gerrymandering, the Census Bureau should listen to the growing bipartisan consensus among states and adjust its policies to end prison gerrymandering nationwide.


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