Guest Column: Spencer on felons and redistricting

Got this email from Douglas Spencer and he agreed to let me post it:


I read your post on the new Oregon measure for counting felons as part of the redistricting process.  I don’t know too much about this, either, but in addition to general population shifts, I do know that this has been one of the ways that power has shifted away from urban areas to more rural areas.  Prisoners generally come from urban areas but (if they are counted) are counted as residents of the zip code where the prison is.  On the one hand, this makes sense because the prison zip code supports the prison.  But actually, prisons are financed by the federal government or by the state government and not by local communities so it doesn’t really make sense to give the congressional district where the prison is located more power (since prisoner’s can’t vote, that just means that the non-prisoner population has a greater share of the voting power).

Since the average prison sentence is 57 months (4.75 years), a good chunk of these prisoners are going to get out before the next Census and they are not sticking around the rural prison district, but probably headed back to the more urban areas where they came from and where their families are.  Unfortunately when they get there, they won’t have been accounted for.

This may be all basic stuff that you already know, but you solicited people’s thoughts and I thought I’d share.

Douglas M. Spencer
Jurisprudence and Social Policy Ph.D. Program
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law