Pa. redistricting panel rolls back new policy to count incarcerated people in home districts, not state prisons

Kate Huangpu
Spotlight PA
In a significant shift, a commission in August approved a resolution to count most Pennsylvania residents incarcerated at state prisons at the address where they last lived.

This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support ofSpotlight PA members andVotebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.

HARRISBURG — Thousands of people will be excluded from a new redistricting policy that counts state prisoners in their home communities rather than in corrections facilities, rolling back part of a major change that shifts political power away from predominantly white, rural districts.

The 3-2 decision by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission will impact any incarcerated person whose sentence ends after April 1, 2030 — an estimated 3,000 people.

The panel of four legislative leaders, as well as an appointed chair, redraws Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate maps every 10 years after the U.S Census Bureau releases new population data.

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In a significant shift, the commission in August approved a resolution to count most Pennsylvania residents incarcerated at state prisons at the address where they last lived. The decision does not affect the state’s congressional map, which is drawn by the Legislature and approved by the governor. It also does not apply to federal prisons or county jails.

The original policy excluded nearly 4,000 incarcerated people sentenced to life in prison. Now, 7,000 out of 37,000 state prisoners will be excluded.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who introduced the resolution, said state prisoners with sentences that last until 2030 will still be incarcerated by the next census and thus be using the resources of their facilities’ districts.

“I still believe that reallocating prisoners is a flawed concept,” Ward said. “However ... limiting the scope of prisoner reallocation ... is a common-sense compromise.”

Ward and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, voted in favor of the  resolution, with the Democrats on the panel voting against it. The deciding vote was cast by Chair Mark Nordenberg, who also cast the tie-breaking vote on the original resolution.

Nordenberg emphasized the new resolution was a compromise on the part of  GOP lawmakers.

“Not that it’s perfect, not that it’s ideal … but is it reasonable? Is it thoughtful? Is it advanced for what I would consider to be appropriate reasons?” Nordenberg said. “My answer to that question is yes.”

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, who introduced the first resolution and has championed opposition to “prison gerrymandering” in the Legislature, argued  that there is no accurate way to predict which state prisoners will still be incarcerated in 2030. The resolution doesn’t account for direct appeals, clemency and other ways sentences could be shortened, she said.

“The rationale for treating incarcerated individuals as residents of their home communities rather than the places where they’re incarcerated … [is not changed by] the length of a prisoner’s minimum sentence,” McClinton said.

Counting prisoners as residents of state House and Senate districts where they are incarcerated has boosted the population of rural, predominantly white areas outside of the southeast while sapping representation from Allegheny County, Philadelphia and other parts of the state with many people of color.

The head of one good-government group that supported the original resolution said he was “deeply disappointed” by the recent decision.

“This resolution is nothing more than an attempt to leverage the bodies of incarcerated individuals, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, in order to bolster the population and political power of Pennsylvania’s rural, disproportionately white districts,” Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission expects to receive cleaned, usable census data by Nov. 9 at the latest. Once the data is certified, the panel will have 90 days to create new maps and reveal them to the public.

It’s likely Nordenberg, a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor, will be called on to cast the deciding vote on the maps, which help determine the balance of power in Harrisburg for the next decade.

“The resolution carries by a 3-2 vote, a voting pattern that now we have seen on both of the serious votes that we have taken,” Nordenberg said, “but that I hope we’ll be able to break out of as we move forward.”

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