Key decision looms for how Colorado will count inmates in redistricting data

Civil rights organizations push commissions to end ‘prison gerrymandering’ by counting incarcerated people using last known address

By: - August 10, 2021 5:00 am

The outside of building that is a part of the Denver Sheriff Department’s County Jail Division, taken on Feb. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

The independent commissions charged with redrawing Colorado’s political maps will make a key decision this week regarding how to count incarcerated people in the state’s redistricting data.

Colorado’s two independent redistricting commissions will vote this week on whether to count incarcerated individuals using their permanent addresses, as is done with military service members, or the address of the prison they reside in. A final vote will likely take place on Thursday for the congressional redistricting commission and Friday for the legislative commission. 

Historically, prison inmates have been counted in the census as residing in the county where they are incarcerated, which redistricting reform advocates say skews the numbers — and federal funding allocations — in favor of more rural, less diverse districts. 

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“Counting incarcerated people in the jurisdictions where they’re confined and where they can’t actually vote not only inflates representation for that political district but it dilutes it for the districts that don’t contain prisons,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization involved in the redistricting process.

State lawmakers passed a law last year that required incarcerated individuals to be counted as living at their last known address, but a recent Colorado Supreme Court ruling said the decision is constitutionally in the hands of the state’s two independent redistricting commissions. 

The commissions are rapidly approaching the finish line for the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative maps using updated population data, which will be released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday. The new boundaries ultimately determine how communities are represented at the local, state and national levels, as well as how federal funds are allocated.

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The final congressional map is due to the Supreme Court by Oct. 8 and the legislative map by Oct. 23, according to Jessika Shipley, staff director for the independent redistricting commissions. 

“So the vote would have to take place no later than Oct. 1 to give us a week to get all the briefs written and that sort of thing,” Shipley said. 

‘Noise’ could complicate prison reallocation data

Regardless of the commissions’ decision, commission staff are required to create an alternative data set using inmates’ last known residences provided by the Colorado Department of Corrections, Shipley said. There are currently 14,126 people incarcerated in Colorado’s 21 private and state prisons, according to a department spokesperson.

Shipley said concerns remain regarding the accuracy of the process to reallocate inmates using their last known residence. 

I think there’s always the concern about changing census data. That’s a subjective kind of thing. I mean, if you change it for one thing, why don’t you change it for other things?

– Jessika Shipley, staff director for Colorado's independent redistricting commissions

“I think there’s always the concern about changing census data,” she said. “That’s a subjective kind of thing. I mean, if you change it for one thing, why don’t you change it for other things?”

Another potential obstacle: “noise” introduced into the census data to protect people’s identity. 

“Differential privacy is intentionally adding “noise” to the data, essentially adding false data to make it more difficult for, say, a third party to use census data to identify a specific individual,” said Alana Kornaker, a senior geography student at Middlebury College who is working with the GeoCivics center at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, which promotes public participation in the redistricting process.

“There’s really going to be no way they’re going to be 100% accurate in this matching process of assigning the prisoners from their prison to where they were last known as residing,” she added.

Shipley said that staff members with the independent redistricting commissions estimate that the accuracy of the data would be between 70% and 80%.

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Gonzalez said the imperfect data shouldn’t be a reason to back off the efforts to accurately count incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Coloradans in the redistricting process. “I’m not sure that the perfect should be the enemy of the good here,” she said. 

Kornaker agrees.

“These lines that we’re drawing now, with the data we’re using to draw these lines, are going to be in place for the next 10 years,” Kornaker said. “So if, for example, someone who was imprisoned and was charged with a felony gets out of jail and they’re free next year, they’re going to need to be able to vote and have their voices heard.” 

Shipley said another concern raised earlier in the process was that small communities that house prisons rely on the federal funding that comes along with the people incarcerated within the facilities.

She said other states are grappling with similar questions.

“Lots of other states are trying to figure out the best process, especially in light of the data privacy issue, and whether you can even come up with accurate numbers that way,” she added.

A push to end ‘prison gerrymandering’

A coalition of state and local civil rights organizations sent a letter to the commissions on Monday strongly encouraging them to end “prison gerrymandering” by using incarcerated peoples’ home addresses rather than their prison location. The letter highlights how allocating people based on prison location specifically disenfranchises Black and Brown communities due to the overrepresentation of people of color in Colorado prisons.

In Colorado, Hispanic people make up 31% of the state’s prison population but only represent 22% of the state’s general population. Similarly, African American or Black people make up 18% of the prison population but only 4.6% of Colorado’s general population, according to the most recent census data.

Hassan Latif, executive director and founder of Colorado’s Second Chance Center, a nonprofit that supports people coming out of prison, said the current process for counting incarcerated people financially deprives formerly incarcerated people returning to the under-resourced communities in which they were convicted.

We have to look at the fact that this almost disqualifies peoples' citizenship going forward by not being counted in the communities they are returning to.

– Hassan Latif, executive director of Colorado's Second Chance Center

“We have to look at the fact that this almost disqualifies peoples’ citizenship going forward by not being counted in the communities they are returning to,” said Latif, who spent 18 years incarcerated in a Colorado prison before launching his nonprofit. “It’s almost like a continuation of a lot of the collateral consequences of conviction that we’re working so hard to try to counter.”

State and private prisons are largely located in rural areas, but the vast majority of inmates have been convicted in urban jurisdictions, according to an analysis published by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, which authored the letter. 

The analysis found that 1 out of every 3 prison inmates in Colorado is incarcerated in Fremont County, where six prisons are located, yet only 1% of people sentenced to prison were convicted out of that county. The analysis shows that 86% of inmates received their convictions in large metropolitan counties.

The leaders who signed the letter, including Latif, recommend that the redistricting commissions follow the practice used by the U.S. Army, which counts service members based on their place of permanent residence, not where they are deployed, essentially ensuring that the communities receive an accurate allotment of federal funds. 

“(The practice used by the military) is an accommodation that recognizes service members are temporarily away from home,” the letter reads. “We submit (that) people in prison are also temporarily away from home and therefore should also be reallocated to their home communities for purposes of redistricting.”

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Newsline reporter that covered criminal justice, housing and homelessness, and other social issues.

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