For the first time in the state’s history, Colorado will change how it counts incarcerated people when drawing up new legislative maps, a redistricting panel confirmed in a vote on Friday.
Historically, prison inmates have been counted by the U.S. Census Bureau as residing in the county where they are incarcerated, which redistricting and criminal justice reform advocates say skews an area’s population — and therefore political power and federal funding allocations — in favor of the more rural, less diverse districts where prison are typically located. The practice is commonly referred to as prison gerrymandering.
“Black and brown Coloradans are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white Coloradans and incarcerated people of color are often transferred to predominantly white areas that bear no resemblance to their home communities,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization involved in the redistricting process, in a written statement. “This is how systemic racism flourishes.”
Now, Colorado’s Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission will work to rectify that by counting the state’s more than 14,000 incarcerated people using their last known address, not the location of their prison. The panel approved the change in a vote on Friday afternoon.
John Buckley III, a Republican member of the legislative commission, called into the group’s meeting on Friday while on vacation specifically to vote in favor of the change. He told his fellow commissioners that he was moved by testimony he heard from a formerly incarcerated man earlier in the month.
“This is my one little push, as a conservative, mind you, against not showing grace and mercy in this one little area,” Buckley said. “So I’m voting for grace and mercy.”
The commission passed the measure on a 10-2 vote, with commissioners Gary Horvath, a Democrat, and Aislinn Kottwitz, a Republican, the lone votes in opposition.