Prisoner count proving contentious in debate

Legislative redistricting has been a contentious topic in Pennsylvania for years.

Most recently, the state Supreme Court tossed the state’s Congressional map, deeming it unconstitutional in the wake of a League of Women’s Voters legal challenge in 2017 that claimed gerrymandering.

Early action in the most recent re-write of the state maps — specifically regarding where to count inmates in state correctional institutions — would appear to indicate that common ground may be hard to find.

The U.S. Census Bureau counts prison inmates at the location where they are incarcerated.

But action taken in August by the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission — tasked with drawing the state House and Senate maps — would change that procedure and count the state’s over 35,000 state prison inmates from their last residence in the state before they were incarcerated.

But the GOP-led state House is fighting back.

It’s particularly relevant in a place like Forest County.

The 2020 Census reported the population of the county at 6,973 but one-in-three of that number — 2,278 as of the end of August according to a Department of Corrections report — are inmates at SCI Forest.

There’s legislation out there — House Bill 706 — aimed to bring about the same result.

“This unintentionally inflates the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain these facilities at the expense of areas that do not,” Representatives Joanna McClinton and Summer Lee wrote in a legislative memo.

“Even though incarcerated individuals are often hundreds of miles away from their home, and those housed with felony convictions cannot vote, they are counted where their jail cell is located, even if they will soon be returning home,” they write. “This unfair and short-sided policy robs an individual’s home district of representation for a full ten years, even though the average prison sentence in the United States is roughly 3 years. Moreover, incarcerated individuals lack strong, enduring ties to the communities where they are held and often utilize the services of the representatives of their pre-incarceration district.”

A recent State Government Committee hearing approved a resolution on a straight partisan vote to add college students in student housing and inmates in county and municipal jails.

A letter from McClinton was read in that hearing where she asked that the legislation be withdrawn by the committee in light of action by the state LRC but the committee approved the legislation with a negative recommendation on another straight partisan vote.

The chair of the committee, Rep. Seth Grove, called the LRC’s action “legally dubious.” He said the committee was moving the bill along not out of agreement with the proposal but to obtain broader input from the House.


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