Last week, the Prison Policy Initiative published a report – States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021 – which compared the incarceration rate of each state in the U.S. to other countries’ rates.
The research think tank used U.S. and United Nations crime and incarceration data (including figures from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program) to illustrate a stark contrast between America and other countries.
The U.S. criminal justice system is “globally unprecedented” in terms of the scope and harshness, according to the report: “Incarceration has become the nation’s default response to crime, with, for example, 70 percent of convictions resulting in confinement — far more than other developed nations with comparable crime rates.”
Compared to the U.S. average, North Carolina has a lower percentage of its population incarcerated; however, the state’s rate still surpassed that of El Salvador, Turkmenistan and Rwanda. The state also has a higher incarceration rate than all other founding NATO countries.
617 — number of North Carolinians incarcerated per 100,000 people. This includes those in state prisons, local jails and detention centers, federal prisons, and other systems of confinement — juvenile facilities, psychiatric treatment facilities for people involuntarily committed, etc.
372 — number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents in North Carolina
664 — incarceration rate per 100,000 residents in the U.S.
379 — number of violent crimes per 100,000 U.S. residents
104 — per 100,000 incarceration rate in Canada
310 — violent crime rate in Canada per 100,000 residents
Mass incarceration has posed challenges for redistricting. The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in their facilities, although North Carolina law does not consider a prison cell as a person’s residence. This means thousands of incarcerated people are counted outside of the districts they originally come from, or where they plan to reside permanently. This counting method inflates the population of districts with large prisons, jails and other detention facilities.
Often referred to as “prison gerrymandering,” the phenomenon skews population counts and alters the voting power of people as well.
People living close to prisons gain more representation because of the incarcerated population that would otherwise not reside in the district. On the other hand, more diluted are the votes of people from communities that have residents serving time elsewhere.
In North Carolina, incarcerated people with felony convictions still cannot vote, but they are counted in the area in which they are imprisoned. Meanwhile, those with misdemeanor charges serving time in jail are still required to vote from their home address but are counted in the districts where they’re locked up.
“The disconnect between where you are counted, and your presentation is really clear,” Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative, told Policy Watch.
Some states and local jurisdictions have introduced proposals to correct the misalignment in census counts. However, North Carolina has yet to pass statewide legislation to address prison gerrymandering.
The Prison Policy Initiative has a tool for locating correctional facilities in their census blocks.
The following numbers illustrate the nature of the problem:
5,361 — prison population of Granville County in 2010, 9.4% of the county total
40.9% — share of the population in a Granville County Board of Commissioners district drawn in the 2010 redistricting cycle that represents incarcerated individuals
2 — number of state House districts drawn in 2011 that met the constitutionally required district population only by counting people incarcerated in prisons located in the district. These are District 55, Anson and Union counties, represented by Mark Brody, a Republican, and District 12, Lenoir and Pitt counties, represented by Chris Humphrey, also a Republican.
15.3% — share of Greene County population that resides in correctional facilities, according to the 2020 census, the highest in the state. Four correctional facilities in the county housed 3,129 people.
42.3% — share of the population included in a city council district in the Robeson County town of Lumberton drawn in the 2010 cycle that represented incarcerated individuals (the prison population was 1,118 in 2010, or 5.19% of the city total)
Sources: Prison Policy Initiative, U.S. Census Bureau redistricting file
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a phrase which indicated that, by skewing population counts, prison gerrymandering impacts subsequent funding allocations. In fact, inaccurate population counts do not impact how much federal and state funding a district receives. We regret the error.]