Prison population affecting Florida's redistricting fight

Published Aug. 19, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's prison population is fast becoming a point of contention in the Legislature's attempt to redraw the state's congressional districts.

The last census counted more than 160,000 people in Florida correctional facilities and they cannot vote. But they can skew how districts are drawn, and ultimately who represents the state in the U.S. House of Representatives. That is exactly what U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who represents District 5, is convinced is happening in North Florida.

Brown said the proposed new District 5 stretching from Jacksonville to Tallahassee would see a reduction in the percentage of black residents who are of voting age — a key measure used to ensure black voters can elect who they want to represent them in Congress. She said the percentage would go from 50 percent to 45 percent under the map that passed the House on Tuesday and is expected to be before the Senate today.

But Brown, who is suing the Legislature to block the redrawing of her district, said the diminishment of the black voting age population in her district could be even greater because her new district would have 17,000 prisoners in it — giving it one of the highest prison populations in the state. Her current district has 10,000 prisoners.

"You know that this is a non-performing area because you have 18 prisons," Brown told the Senate last week, contending her district would be harder for black candidates to win if redrawn as planned.

Because the percentage of black inmates is proportionally higher than in the rest of the population, it can look like the black voting age population is higher in Brown's new district than it really is, her supporters argue. In Florida, 46 percent of the prison population is black, yet just 16 percent of the state's population is, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit national group advocating for changing how prisons are tallied in the census.

The federal government has required states to count prisoners as residents of the towns where they are held, not where they are from. It is those population tallies that the Florida Legislature must use to draw congressional districts that contain equal numbers of people to provide equal representation in Congress.

It's a bad way to do a census, said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative. By counting prisoners where they are incarcerated, states are giving people living in communities with prisons more voting power and representation than they should have when it is clear inmates are not part of the town and counties they are counted in.

His group is lobbying the U.S. Census Bureau to change how it tallies inmates in the census in 2020, counting prisoners in the communities where they're from instead of where they are held.

How prison populations affect the districts was a key part of the debate in the Florida House on Tuesday.

"Congressional people do not have to do a single thing for people that are in prison but yet these people are counted," state Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami, said.

Even the head of the House redistricting committee, Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Republican, warned how prisons could affect Brown's district.

"I think that's a major concern," Oliva said.

Oliva and House members who supported the redistricting plan were clear that they are only accepting the new District 5 because it represents what the Florida Supreme Court prescribed when it invalidated the state's current congressional districts last month.

The House on Tuesday approved a map on a 76-35 vote based on the Supreme Court's instructions. Most of the chamber's Republicans and nine Democrats voted for the map. Now, the map will go to the Senate, where lawmakers have already made changes to district boundaries in Hillsborough and Sarasota counties. The chambers have until Friday to meet a self-imposed deadline for a consensus map.

Brown's district is set to be one of the most altered. Instead of running snakelike from Jacksonville to Orlando, it would go east-west from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. Like all of Florida's districts, it would have 696,345 people, but 17,000 of those people would be in some sort of correctional facility, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That includes people in state prisons, reformatories, houses of correction, and other state institutions for the confinement and correction of convicted persons and juveniles, according to the Census Bureau.

Only two congressional districts would have more people in correctional facilities. District 3, held by Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, would have 18,000. And District 2, represented by Tallahassee Democrat Gwen Graham, would have 33,000.

Fixing those numbers has proved vexing even for people who agree with Brown.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, proposed a plan that would increase the black voting age population in Brown's district to 46.6 percent. Gibson cited concerns over the prisons as one of her points of contention, yet her proposal, which is scheduled to be considered by the Senate today, would boost the number of people incarcerated in Brown's district to nearly 23,000.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, took his own shot at redrawing the district. But while his plan would increase the black voting age population, it would also require putting almost 30,000 inmates into Brown's district.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Michael Auslen contributed to this report.