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Lawmaker to Propose Bill Ending ‘Prison Gerrymandering'

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A Kentucky state lawmaker says he will introduce a bill that will accurately apportion the state’s prison population in legislative districts.

Louisville Democrat Rep. Darryl Owens says he plans to file a measure for next year’s General Assembly that would change how the U.S. Census counts Kentucky’s prisoners; currently, they are counted in the district of their incarceration. Owen’s bill could place them in districts based on their previous home address, or not count them altogether.

Owens says that he thinks his bill will fare well in the upcoming legislative session. 

“We’ve got to figure out a way to count them, but make sure that they don’t have a big impact on the local community where they can’t even vote and don’t even live,” Owens said.

Critics of the current system say that counting prisoners in the district where they are incarcerated unfairly amplifies the political power of voters who live there relative to other districts.

“It’s not really gerrymandering, because, I mean, we’re not, nobody’s going out to gerrymander prisoners,” Owens said. “It’s just the way we do the apportionment that creates the problem.”

Since the prisoners cannot vote according to Kentucky law, they artificially inflate the ballot power of actual voters who live near correctional facilities, which critics say violates the 14th Amendment’s “one person, one vote” principle.

Peter Wagner is executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocated reform of this practice. He told a legislative committee that prisoners are fundamentally different than other non-voting blocs, like children.

“The problem is that prisoners are part of a different community of interests. They can’t kind of rely on their neighbors to vote for them in that same way,” Wagner said. “So the problem is not so much that they can’t vote, although I think that is relevant, the problem is that they’re being counted in districts that they don’t actually reside in.”

Owens believes his bill has a good chance in the upcoming session, and that Kentucky will join the ranks of eight states that have passed similar legislation. In Kentucky, Oldham County no longer counts prisoners in any of its local electoral districts.

According to the Kentucky Department of Corrections, there are nearly 12,000 prisoners in the state correctional system. 

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