NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Roughly 6,000 inmates are locked away in New Mexico’s prisons, and another 6,000 or so are in jails and federal detention, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission. While a significant number of those inmates can’t vote, they still have the ability to sway political power.
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By inflating population counts of otherwise low-population counties and districts, inmates can affect redistricting, which happens every ten years in New Mexico. The problem is called “prison gerrymandering,” which makes some counties appear more populated than they actually are. The inflated populations have the potential to give more political power to those living nearby — but not in — prisons.
New Mexico could eventually join several other states with laws dedicated to tackling prison gerrymandering. Earlier this month, the independent Citizen Redistricting Committee (CRC) presented a draft of a bill that would use inmates’ last known address — rather than their prison cell — as their location during U.S. Census Bureau counts.
“The CRC believes prison gerrymandering is a legitimate concern,” they wrote in their report to the New Mexico Legislature. “Many people in jails and prisons are represented by elected officials who have no tie to them, their communities, or who are unaware of their interests and needs. Indeed, many inmates are ineligible to vote,” the CRC wrote.
As an independent committee intended to recommend redistricting maps to the state Legislature, the CRC points out that they aren’t in a position to make policy decisions. But, the committee still created a draft bill to address the problem.
The drafted legislation, known as a “discussion draft” has a long way to go before potentially becoming law. But, the idea is to ensure that large inmate populations do not give extra political power to otherwise low-population districts.
“Prison gerrymandering is a problem that distorts our democracy by counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison cell, rather than up the communities where they come from where they’ll likely return to once they’re released from incarceration,” says Mike Wessler, the communications director at the Prison Policy Initiative, a national non-profit working towards criminal justice reform. “What this ends up doing is it takes political representation from those communities were the incarcerated people are from and gives it to areas where there happens to be a prison.”
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Illustrative Example: Prison gerrymandering can give those living near prison more per-person political representation than those not living near prisons.
The 2020 census counted more than 14,800 adults in correctional facilities across New Mexico. Although some have had their voting privileges revoked as part of their conviction, and most did not come from the area where they are now incarcerated, they have the potential to distort population counts near New Mexico’s prisons.
There are currently nine public and two privately-run adult prisons in New Mexico. Although their inmate populations have been declining over the last few years, they still house around 6,000 people a year, according to data from the Legislative Finance Committee and the CRC. The largest concentration of prisoners is in Lea County, the data shows, where the 350,000 square-foot Lea County Correctional Facility is located.
Although Lea County has more than 1,200 prisoners behind bars, according to counts provided to the CRC, prisoners only account for about 1.9% of the 74,455 adults counted in Lea County during the 2020 census. Union County, on the other hand, has an incarcerated population that accounts for more than 10% of the entire county population.
The larger the prison population, when compared to the total population, the greater the impact of potential prison gerrymandering. For example, if all incarcerated individuals in Union County are counted as residing in Union County, 86 non-reincarcerated residents in Union County would have the same political representation as 100 residents in Bernalillo County, where incarcerated individuals make up less than a percent of the total population.
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Guadalupe, Union, and Cibola County have the highest per capita prison populations in New Mexico. Data from 2020 census.
In recent years, New Mexico’s prison population has been declining. Wessler from the Prison Policy Initiative says the larger the prison populations, the larger the potential problem of prison gerrymandering. But he adds it’s still an issue worth addressing despite prison population declines.
Wessler points out that several states have taken steps to solve the issue. These include Colorado and Nevada, our neighboring states.
At the state level, “the way to solve prison gerrymandering is to count incarcerated people where they are originally from — their last known address,” he explains. “So you take the census data that the Census Bureau produces, you make tweaks based on where you know incarcerated people are previously from. What this ends up doing is it just reallocates and kind of redraws the lines in a way that creates a more accurate picture of representation.”
In January of 2020, Colorado legislators introduced a bill to do just that. By March of 2020, it was signed into law. Wessler says that the draft legislation created by the legislative council service and New Mexico’s redistricting committee is similar to the Colorado law as well as Nevada’s law.
“We think it’s a really good step that the New Mexico redistricting commission has put forward this draft legislation, and we think it’s good legislation,” Wessler says. “We didn’t see any particular shortcomings.”
Edward L. Chávez, the chair of this year’s Citizen Redistricting Committee which made the recommendation to the Legislature says he doesn’t expect the draft legislation to become law in the next few legislative sessions. After all, the next census won’t happen until 2030, he points out. As for this time around, Chávez says they did all they could to address the issue given how quickly the committee, which is brand new this year, had to organize.
“We were instructed by the Legislature to go out and listen to the public and take their concerns to heart and that’s what we did,” he says. “We just ran out of time to be able to do anything about it.”