Wednesday, August 08, 2007

How Inmate Populations Skew Political Power

We've previously blogged about the distorting effects of counting inmates as citizens of the town where their prison is located, rather than the neighborhoods they came from and will return to. Among other things, we noted, this practice unfairly inflates the political power of prison towns. In effect, since incarcerated people are disenfranchised, the votes of citizens in towns that house prisons are worth more than those of citizens who reside in other areas. It also drains political power from districts with high crime rates (who arguably need resources at least as much as other districts).

This issue is generally discussed in the context of its effects on state legislatures and Congress. But an interesting article in yesterday's New York Times points out that its distorting effects are most dramatically felt in apportioning votes in local government, "diluting the votes of residents in other parts" of the city or county.

The graph that accompanies the article gives an eye-popping representation of how frantastic this distorting effect can be on county boards and in city councils. In Livingson County, for instance, 60% of the residents of one district are in prison. The result is that County Board Supervisor elected from this district has twice as much voting power as he otherwise would. In New York City, 8% of the residents living in Peter F. Vallone Jr.'s district (which includes Rikers Island) are incarcerated.

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