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Cunningham Bill to End Prison Based Gerrymandering for Redistricting Purposes Clears Committee

Senator Sandra Cunningham listens to testimony during the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing.

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Sandra Cunningham, requiring incarcerated individuals in State and Federal facilities in New Jersey to be counted at their last known complete address cleared the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee yesterday. The bill changes the way incarcerated individuals are counted for redistricting purposes.

The bill, S-587, would require the State Department of Corrections to collect and maintain an electronic record of the residential address of each individual entering its custody. This record would contain the last known complete street address of each individual prior to incarceration, the individual’s race, whether the individual is of Hispanic or Latino origin, and whether the person is over the age of 18. The classification of an individual’s race, ethnic origin, and age would be the same as used by the United States Bureau of the Census.

“It is unfair for inmates to be considered part of a community where they’ll likely never live as a free citizen,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “In many cases, incarceration is only temporary, which is why their actual address should be counted. These individuals have special personal and professional ties to their own community and they should not be considered part of a community in which they live temporarily. This process also unfairly skews the districts and creates an imbalance when it comes to representation. This bill will correct this issue to create a better and more fair process of representation across the state.”

Currently, the Bureau of the Census counts prisoners as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated. Census data is used for multiple purposes, including legislative apportionment. This bill would also provide that legislative districts be drawn to meet equal population requirements.

Because the incarcerated population is not geographically distributed the same way as the general population throughout the State, and because prisoners tend to go back to their original communities after incarceration, the current system leads to discrepancies in terms of how communities are represented in the State Legislature. For example, Burlington County’s general population represents only 5% of the State’s population, but it hosts one fifth of its State and federal prisoners. On the other hand, 10% of New Jersey residents live in Bergen County, but it hosts only 3% of the State’s prisoners.

Incarcerated individuals are prohibited from voting in all States but Vermont and Maine. In 2016 in New Jersey, 26,081 persons were imprisoned in State and federal facilities.

S-587 cleared the committee 3-1-1 and will now head to the full Senate for further consideration.

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