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Inmate Populations Cast Doubt On State, Local District Lines

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Ebyabe via wikimedia commons
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A recent federal court ruling calls into question how prison populations should be treated when it comes to redistricting.  A judge invalidated Jefferson County’s local district boundaries.

Rural Jefferson County sits just to the east of Tallahassee.  Internally, it’s split into five districts for elected seats like school board and county commission.  In the last census, Jefferson had just short of 15,000 residents.  The districts are small—just a couple thousand people—and the number of eligible voters is even smaller.  That’s why the American civil liberties union got involved after the last round of redistricting.

“So in our case in Jefferson County,” ACLU of Florida legal director Nancy Abudu says, “the county is divided into five districts and one of those districts included the prison, and in that prison district the prisoners represented over forty percent of the voting population.”

Abudu argues Jefferson County’s district three violates one person one vote principles, because the large population of non-voting prisoners amplifies the voice of the remaining residents.   The ACLU calls this prison gerrymandering.

“There’s actually several counties in Florida that also use prisons when they draw their county and school board lines,” Matthew Isbell says.  “Hendry County stands out to me—several other rural counties do as well.”

Isbell is a left-leaning mapping contractor.  According to the Prison Policy Initiative—an organization that tracks prison gerrymandering throughout the country—there are nine additional counties adding inmates to their municipal districts. 

But after Judge Mark Walker’s ruling that may change.  It’s the first time a federal judge has ruled against prison gerrymandering.  He’s ordered Jefferson County to revise its borders by early April, warning the court will step in if the county fails.  But Isbell expects the county will comply.

“There’s no reason we can’t go ahead with new lines for the 2016 elections,” Isbell says.  “So this should all be resolved fairly quickly, unless the county decides to appeal, and honestly if they do, they’re just dragging it out.  They’re going to cost themselves more money it’s honestly not worth it for them to fight this.”

Abudu says the ruling will put other counties on notice.  But they’re not the only people paying attention.

Democratic Congresswoman Corinne Brown is challenging Florida’s newest congressional map under the Voting Rights Act because she says the number of prisons included in her district will diminish minority voting power.

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL)
Credit Nick Evans
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Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL)

“It has 25 prisons in the district,” Brown shouted to supporters through a bull horn Friday. “25 prisons!”

“Everybody says you can win anywhere—it’s not about me winning,” Brown says.  “It’s about the African Americans having the ability to elect a candidate of their choice.”

This is different than the ACLU’s challenge in Jefferson County.  Brown’s case has to do with minority representation—whether African American candidates have a fair shot in the district—while the Jefferson case focuses on simple population disparity.  

Abudu says Brown might have a point—but it depends on how the district performs.

“That argument for sure shouldn’t just be tossed out as completely unreasonable,” she says.  “I think you really have to look at the analysis to see if she really can support such a claim.

But Isbell isn’t buying Brown’s claims.  He says historical data shows a district with strong African American participation, and he says the prison population just isn’t that big.

“Total prison population of this newly proposed congressional district five is somewhere between one and two percent of the total population of the district,” Isbell says.

Browns case came up in federal court Friday.  The Jefferson County Commission is slated to meet Monday to figure out how it will proceed.