Colorado redistricting panel votes to end ‘prison gerrymandering’ in new legislative maps

Congressional commission rejected a similar change this week

By: - August 13, 2021 5:08 pm
Denver jail voting

Juston Cooper, left, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, applauds 19-year-old Isaiah Rodriguez, after Rodriguez finishes voting in person at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver on Nov. 3, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

For the first time in the state’s history, Colorado will change how it counts incarcerated people when drawing up new legislative maps, a redistricting panel confirmed in a vote on Friday.

Historically, prison inmates have been counted by the U.S. Census Bureau as residing in the county where they are incarcerated, which redistricting and criminal justice reform advocates say skews an area’s population — and therefore political power and federal funding allocations — in favor of the more rural, less diverse districts where prison are typically located. The practice is commonly referred to as prison gerrymandering.

“Black and brown Coloradans are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white Coloradans and incarcerated people of color are often transferred to predominantly white areas that bear no resemblance to their home communities,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization involved in the redistricting process, in a written statement. “This is how systemic racism flourishes.”

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Now, Colorado’s Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission will work to rectify that by counting the state’s more than 14,000 incarcerated people using their last known address, not the location of their prison. The panel approved the change in a vote on Friday afternoon.

John Buckley III, a Republican member of the legislative commission, called into the group’s meeting on Friday while on vacation specifically to vote in favor of the change. He told his fellow commissioners that he was moved by testimony he heard from a formerly incarcerated man earlier in the month.

“This is my one little push, as a conservative, mind you, against not showing grace and mercy in this one little area,” Buckley said. “So I’m voting for grace and mercy.”

The commission passed the measure on a 10-2 vote, with commissioners Gary Horvath, a Democrat, and Aislinn Kottwitz, a Republican, the lone votes in opposition.

State lawmakers passed legislation last year that required incarcerated individuals to be counted as living at their last known address, but a recent Colorado Supreme Court ruling left the decision in the hands of the state’s two independent redistricting commissions. Each commission has 12 people — four Democrats, four Republicans and four Unaffiliated members.

Both commissions are rapidly approaching the finish line for the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative maps using updated population data, which was released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday. 

The new maps, which are due to the Supreme Court in mid-October, will ultimately determine how communities are represented in the state legislature and in Congress, as well as how federal funds are allocated.

Commission tasked with redrawing Colorado’s eight congressional districts votes to keep the status quo

The state’s other independent redistricting commission, tasked with redrawing the state’s eight congressional districts, voted on Thursday to keep the status quo and continue using an inmate’s prison address for redistricting.

The change by the legislative commission will have a greater impact than the congressional panel’s decision, because state legislative districts are smaller and therefore more influenced by population fluctuations.

During the congressional commission’s meeting on Thursday, members opposed the measure for a wide array of reasons, arguing that the change would set a precedent going forward for altering census data, and that it was too partisan an issue for the commission to vote on.

“No one can doubt that this is a violently charged topic about which people are so in fundamental disagreement about that they riot in the streets about it,” said William Leone, a Republican member of the congressional commission, who spoke in opposition of the change on Thursday. 

“For our commission to take sides in that would be, to me, the death of our ability to claim that we are an objective, nonpartisan commission,” he added.

Lori Smith Schell, an unaffiliated member of the commission, echoed similar concerns.

“We would not be having this debate if all the prisons were in Denver, and all our prisoners were to be reallocated to the eastern plains and the Western Slope,” Schell said. “And if the outcome matters, that is if the race of the prisoner matters, if the location of the prison matters, or if the last known address of the prison matters, we should not be pursuing this.”

Simon Tafoya, a Democratic member of the congressional commission who voted in favor of the change, pushed back on Schell’s comments, saying the reallocation of incarcerated people during redistricting is a necessary step towards disrupting the racist systems that have resulted in people of color being overrepresented in the criminal justice system. 

“I don’t want to say that everybody in the prison system is there because of an unfair judgment, but we know, factually (and) academically, that (of) the individuals who are in prisons today, including in Colorado, the brown and Black community is over-represented,” Tafoya said. “To me, that is fundamentally a problem.” 

Elizabeth Wilkes, a Democratic member of the congressional commission who also voted in favor of the change, expressed similar sentiments. “I believe that in (order) to dismantle systemic racism, we have to change the system’s data,” she said. “I think this is the right thing to do.”

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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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