In Brief

Impact of new prison redistricting law remains unclear

By: - August 23, 2021 7:03 am

State Sen. Shirley Turner talks to fellow lawmakers and journalists at (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The impact of a new law that will count incarcerated New Jerseyans as living in their home communities — hailed by supporters as an end to “prison gerrymandering” — remains unclear.

“It was a long time coming,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a sponsor. “In fact, it’s long past time that we eliminate prison gerrymandering, because that’s actually what it boils down to.”

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, would shift the residencies of up to 38,188 individuals in state, private, and county-run correctional facilities for the purpose of drawing congressional, county, and local district lines. Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law Thursday.

There’s still uncertainty about how the new law will shift district numbers, especially at the congressional level. Districts hosting prisons will lose some of the individuals confined there, but they can also gain population from incarcerated residents imprisoned elsewhere in the state.

“Some percentage of prison population in Cumberland County may be moved to Essex for the purposes of redistricting, but some folks who are living in Essex, for the purposes of the old count, might have been from Hudson or Morris or somewhere else,” said Peter Chen, a senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank.

Congressional districts represented by Reps. Jeff Van Drew (R-Cape May) and Donald Payne Jr. (D-Essex) each host prison populations in excess of 9,000 and are the most susceptible to the shifts.

Despite the lack of surety, the impact on congressional lines will be minimal given those districts target a total population of more than 700,000, but that becomes less and less true as localities grow smaller in size.

County and school board districts, as well as municipal wards, stand to be affected the most.

Advocates have supported the push to count incarcerated individuals in their hometowns as a means of realigning representation — and the resources it brings — with population.

The existing system, they argue, allowed areas hosting large jail populations to reap rewards while bumping up the individual value of each vote in the district.

“Rather than have this inflated number of residents in communities with prisons, which doesn’t make any sense for the purposes served by redistricting, we figured it makes sense to count them where they actually will live when they avail themselves of public services,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), another prime sponsor.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.