The Lead

McClinton calls for safeguards against prison gerrymandering in Pa. legislative maps

By: - May 26, 2021 6:49 pm

Then House Caucus Chairperson Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, walks with her colleagues to a church service in Harrisburg in fall 2020, before she was picked by her colleagues to replace Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny (Capital-Star photo).

(*This story was updated at 9:10 p.m. on Wednesday 5/26/21 to include comment from House Republicans, and to reflect that G. Reynolds Clark no longer works at the University of Pittsburgh and that Robert Byer did not donate to President Donald Trump.)

Potentially upsetting decades of precedent that has aided rural, white Pennsylvanians at the expense of Black, urban residents, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, called for state legislators to change how they count prisoners during redistricting.

Under past practice, individuals in prison have been counted as residing in their cell, not at their home, when the state draws its map of the 253 districts that make up the state House and Senate. 

This practice has been backed up by U.S. Census data, which makes the same assumption when counting Americans.

However, this flies in the face of state law, according to McClinton, which states that “no individual who is confined in a penal institution shall be deemed a resident of the election district where the institution is located.”

“The individual shall be deemed to reside where the individual was last registered before being confined in the penal institution,” the law continues.

Speaking to her fellow legislative leaders on the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Committee Wednesday, McClinton called the practice of counting prisons as home “a serious challenge to our commonwealth having true and fair representation.”

Census 2020: Why some Pa. lawmakers say the state’s inmates should be counted at home, rather than in prison

On Wednesday evening, McClinton’s office shared a draft resolution that would make the change for state House and Senate districts.

As of April, 37,000 Pennsylvanians are in prison, according to state data — or a little more than half the population of a state House district.

A Villanova University study released in April 2019 found that counting everyone at their home before they were incarcerated would make four districts — in rural, white parts of the state — too small and force them to expand. 

Such a move would also make four districts too big, and potentially add another majority-minority district to Philadelphia.

The call was greeted with support from McClinton’s Democratic colleague on the commission, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.

Redistricting, explained: What it is, how it works, and how Pa. politicians get to draw their own maps

Commission Chairman Mark Nordenberg did not comment on the underlying idea, but said that the delay in Census data would give the commissioners time to process the data to make the change.

In an email, House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said that the General Assembly should be cautious is adopting the new numbers, arguing it was contrary to Census guidance and “how our state Constitution requires the commission to use the federal decennial census data.”

Gottesman added that counting prisoners at their home address for redistricting purposes should also be adopted for others who live in group housing, such as nursing homes, military barracks, or college dormitories.

The move could be picked up at the committee’s next meeting, which could come as soon as next month.

Additionally, the commission confirmed Nordenberg’s picks for his chief counsel and executive director.

Duane Morris attorney Robert Byer was appointed as Nordenberg’s chief counsel. Byer also served on the state’s Commonwealth Court from 1990 to 1992.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Byer has been a semi-frequent political donor to Pennsylvania Republicans. He also gave $250 to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project in 2020.

G. Reynolds Clark, formerly the University of Pittsburgh’s vice chancellor of community initiatives and head of Westinghouse Electric’s community foundation, was named as the committee’s executive director.

According to federal campaign finance records, Clark has only donated just $450 to former Republican Congresswoman Melissa Hart.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.