Prison Gerrymandering in Idaho

Prison gerrymandering is the process by which people who are incarcerated are counted as "residents" of the districts they are incarcerated in-- places incarcerated people may have never stepped foot in prior to their incarceration.

Once each decade, state and local governments update their electoral districts to ensure that each district contains the same population, so that all people have equal representation in government. As part of this process, eleven states have committed to counting people who are incarcerated as residents of their home communities. But in Idaho, people in prison are counted as “residents” of their prison cells—despite the fact that they do not raise their families, worship, go to school, or vote in the districts surrounding prisons. As a result of this policy decision, known as “prison gerrymandering,” incarcerated Idahoans’ bodies are used to bolster the voting strength of districts housing prisons, while their home communities’ representational strength is unfairly diluted.

Prison Gerrymandering by the Numbers:

  • As of the 2010 Census, Idaho House District 22 was nearly 12% incarcerated. This means that HD 22 benefits from an artificially inflated population, as its numbers are bolstered by the people incarcerated in the district who are not actually from there and who cannot vote. When jurisdictions rely on data which does not reflect their real populations, democracy suffers.
  • Black and indigenous Idahoans are incarcerated at 3.2 times the rate of white people in the state. People of color across the nation are disproportionately targeted by the carceral system, meaning that often, the population counts of predominantly white districts are bolstered by states’ decision to count disproportionately non-white people who are incarcerated as residents. The racial injustice is clear, leading many legal scholars to liken prison gerrymandering to the Three Fifths Compromise.
  • On average, according to the most recent data, the average time served by state prisoners from initial admission to initial release was 2.6 years while the median time served was 1.3 years. And almost all return to their home communities after being released. Yet redistricting only occurs once per decade, meaning that people in prisons are counted in their prison districts, not in their homes, long after they return to their communities.

The Solution

At the national level

The quickest and easiest way to end prison gerrymandering would be for the U.S. Census Bureau to refrain from counting people who are incarcerated as at home in their prison cells.

Despite the fact that 77,887 out of 77,863 (99.7%) comments the Bureau received about prisoners said they should be counted at their home address, the Bureau has thus far declined to make this change.

The recently proposed voting rights bill, H.R. 1, would end prison gerrymandering directly, if passed.

At the state level (legislative fix)

States that have successfully ended prison gerrymandering have enacted laws (1) ensuring that states keep accurate data on pre-incarceration addresses and (2) requiring map-makers to count people who are incarcerated as residents of their homes. Legislators interested in passing such legislation may refer to the Prison Policy Initiative’s model state legislation page.

What Next? How do I get involved?

The Idaho Legislature has not yet passed legislation to address this critical issue. However, the Idaho Commission could use its authority to end prison gerrymandering in this redistricting cycle. Some argue that the Commission does not have appropriate authority—we disagree.

  • Reallocating folks back to their homes: Though the U.S. Census Bureau has declined to change the way it counts folks who are incarcerated, it has met advocates part of the way: Now, states that wish to “‘move’ their prisoner population back to the prisoners’ pre-incarceration addresses for redistricting and other purposes” may send the Bureau a data file “indicating where each prisoner was incarcerated on Census Day, as well as their pre-incarceration address.” The Bureau will then review the submitted file and provide a data product that state demographers can use to construct alternative tabulations for mapping and other purposes. In Idaho, this means that state officials can work with the State Department of Corrections and the U.S. Census Bureau to collect and reformat pre-incarceration addresses, to map people in prisons back to their home communities.
  • Citizens and activists may play a role, too, by submitting public comments, participating in public hearings, and leveraging social media to encourage Idaho’s bipartisan Commission for Reapportionment to map people who are incarcerated back to their homes.
  • If the Commission refuses to use its authority to end prison gerrymandering—it should, at the very least, use permissible standard deviations to help mitigate the harm of prison gerrymandering and equalize districts’ constituent populations. This approach involves “overpopulating” districts that have correctional facilities in them, and “underpopulating” the districts from which a disproportionate number of incarcerated people come (within traditionally accepted population deviations). Doing so helps to ensure that the people elected to represent districts that contain correctional facilities actually represent the same number of residents as do the people elected to represent the districts that contain the home addresses of incarcerated people.

More on Redistricting and Prison Gerrymandering

New Census Bureau Data Offers a Chance to Dismantle Prison Gerrymandering

What is Redistricting and Why We Should Care

For more information, please see our partner’s one-pager fact sheet on solutions to prison gerrymandering here.