By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
According to U.S. Census data, Morgan County has 14,000 people and 600 of them are African-American. But that’s a bit misleading because 581 of them are incarcerated, among the 1,800 prisoners housed in the county.
Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, and Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, think those 1,800 prisoners, including the 581 African-Americans, should be counted for purposes of drawing legislative districts in the county where they lived before they were jailed.
“I think it’s clear they are not really part of the community,” Ho told the Interim Joint Committee on State Government which Owens co-chairs.
Ho pointed as well to Clay County which as a population of 24,000 split among six magistrates’ districts of 4,000 people. But two of those districts, Ho said, include about 40 percent of the population behind bars. He said the same problem exists in counties like Lyon, Oldham, Elliott and McCreary where there are prison facilities.
It’s “an undemocratic structure,” Ho said, because constituents in those two Clay County districts have more political clout because fewer constituents are represented by each magistrate.
Kentucky currently counts prisoners for the purposes of drawing state and federal legislative districts – but prisoners can’t vote. Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, and Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, asked Ho how that’s different from children who are also counted for purposes of districting but can’t vote.
But Ho said children are “part of the community,” they participate in the community through commerce and other activities and their representatives consider their needs as they debate legislation. Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, asked about college students, but Ho said many of those register to vote in their college towns and participate in the communities in other ways.
“They really are members of those communities; prisoners are not,” Ho said. “Prisoners can’t be legal residents of that county.”
Owens said the way Kentucky counts prisoners also penalizes minority communities like the largely African-American West End of Louisville. Because minorities make up such a high percentage of the incarcerated population but are often housed in counties with small minority populations, their numbers increase representation for those counties while diminishing the influence of minority areas.
Ho said some states now follow his suggestion – New York, Maryland and Delaware assign the prisoners to the county of their last known address. California is considering similar changes, he said.
Ho said Boyle County avoids the problem of disproportionate representation like the example in Clay County by simply deducting the number of prisoners from the amount of voters it apportions to each district. Thayer said Kentucky counts prisoners for state and federal apportionment but allows local jurisdictions to decide whether to count prisoners.
Owens said his legislation would not affect this year’s re-drawing of legislative districts but if passed would go into affect with the 2020 Census and re-apportionment.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.