New method proposed for census inmate count

A bill intended to provide a more accurate count of Nebraska residents for redistricting purposes was heard Feb. 12 by the Executive Board.

Sen. Tony Vargas
Sen. Tony Vargas

LB1157, introduced by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas, would require that an individual who was a resident of the state prior to being confined to a Nebraska prison be counted as a resident of the county, city or village in which he or she was a resident prior to being confined for purposes of drawing boundaries for legislative and congressional districts.

Census numbers are used in redistricting—the process of drawing new government representational boundaries every 10 years. Redistricting will be undertaken next in 2021.

Vargas said that counting inmates as residents of the city or county in which the prison they reside in is located artificially inflates the population of rural areas—a process he referred to as “prison gerrymandering.”

“One thing that we can and should do before sitting down to draw district lines is to make sure we have the most accurate census data to work off of,” he said. “Every Nebraskan deserves the same level of representation and counting Nebraska prisoners as residents of their home communities is one step we can take toward ensuring that happens.”

Jasmine Harris, director of public policy and advocacy for RISE, testified in support of the bill. She said her organization provides reentry services to inmates from seven Nebraska correctional facilities, the majority of whom return to their hometowns upon release.

Federal dollars that are allocated based on population should go to the communities that provide reentry services, she said, rather than those that house inmates.

“We see the direct impact that occurs when funding is not available for those most essential services,” Harris said.

Also testifying in support was Yshall Davis of the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha. She said that her brother, who is serving a life sentence, encourages his family to contact the state senator in his home district rather than the person who represents the district in which the prison is located, because he understands the challenges that her brother faces.

“He’s never focused on reaching out to get representation from the [senator] in that county,” Davis said.

Schuyler Geery-Zink, staff attorney at Nebraska Appleseed, spoke in favor of LB1157, calling the bill a “racial justice issue.” People of color are overrepresented in the state’s prison population, she said, yet prisons primarily are located in majority white areas of the state—including the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, whose inmates account for one-fourth of the population of Johnson County.

“All people who are incarcerated should be counted in their home communities,” she said. “People [currently] are counted in a voting district where they can’t and don’t vote.”

No one testified in opposition to LB1157 and the committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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