City Council leaders on Thursday introduced a plan to count incarcerated people as residents of their home districts rather than where they are jailed, marking a step toward tackling the issue known as “prison gerrymandering.”
The legislation, developed by Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s office and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, reapportions nearly 7,800 incarcerated people into the city’s 10 Council districts based on each person’s last known address.
Under the plan — which Clarke’s office said addresses populations in both state and county jails — each Council district gains between 500 and 1,500 people. That means the adjustments are small enough that Council would not be required to redraw district boundary lines, which were approved in February and based on the 2020 U.S. census.
During a public hearing in January, many residents who testified were incensed that the secretive process resulted in a map that counted incarcerated people as residents of the district where they are jailed. In recent years, advocates who frame the problem as a racial justice issue have successfully lobbied legislatures across the country to reapportion prisoners. Otherwise, they say, legislative districts with correctional facilities are overrepresented at the expense of other districts.
Council’s 6th District, which includes the city’s State Road jail complex, has a population inflated by as many as 5,000 people who were counted as residents when the census was conducted. The district had been represented by former Councilmember Bobby Henon, who resigned after being convicted on federal corruption charges. His replacement, Mike Driscoll, has not yet been sworn in.
Following the January hearing, Council said it didn’t have prison-adjusted population data to tackle the problem before approving the new map. Under the city’s Home Rule Charter, lawmakers were required to pass a map by Feb. 12 or face having their paychecks withheld.
Clarke’s office pledged to revise its redistricting plan, and Council staff members worked with the Department of Prisons and the City Planning Commission to reapportion the incarcerated people.
Under the proposal introduced Thursday, each of the 10 districts now averages about 161,000 residents. The standard to achieve equal representation is generally that the least and most populous districts are within five percentage points of that target. Philadelphia’s population is just over 1.6 million.
“During our recent redistricting process, we heard from the public as well as from advocates for persons incarcerated in state and county jails, who originally are from Philadelphia,” Clarke said in a statement. “We heard them, and as we said at the time, we would do the additional work needed to correct count these individuals, and apportion them into their correct home Council district. That’s what this legislation does.”
The state addressed prison gerrymandering in its legislative districts last fall when the Legislative Reapportionment Commission voted 3-2 in favor of a proposal that counts incarcerated people in their home districts, not the district in which they are jailed.
Clarke’s bill will be referred to a committee, and a public hearing will take place before a final vote. If it passes, it will go to Kenney’s desk for final approval and will be in place for the 2023 election cycle, when all Council seats and the mayor’s office are on the ballot.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.