ACLU: Nevada risks violating ‘prison gerrymandering’ law
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — American Civil Liberties Union attorneys said if Nevada redraws its political maps without reallocating thousands of inmates to their pre-prison addresses, they will be in violation of a 2019 state law.
The threat of a lawsuit and organization’s insistence that prison officials compile more address could complicate the redistricting process that state lawmakers are expected to conduct this month.
Though the U.S. Census counts inmates at prisons where they’re serving sentences, Nevada is one of a growing number of states required to reallocate state residents in prison to where they previously lived.
Nevada lawmakers in 2019 passed legislation to ban so-called “prison gerrymandering.” It directs the Department of Corrections to “compile the last known residential address of each offender immediately before the offender was sentenced to imprisonment in a facility or institution of the Department” and subsequently “provide to the State Demographer all available information.”
Last week, prison officials said they only had usable addresses for 6,275 people out of the 12,214 counted in the 2020 census, or about 51%.
In a Friday letter sent to lawmakers and state officials, attorneys Holly Welborn and Chris Peterson allege that the thousands of missing inmate addresses “place the Legislature at risk of violating Nevada’s Constitutional requirement to base reapportionment on accurate data.”
Alejandra Livingston, an economist with the Department of Corrections, told lawmakers last week that it wasn’t possible to provide “last known residential addresses” of all its inmates. Some may have been homeless or transient before incarceration, some may be from out of state, some may be serving long-term sentences and some have declined to provide their addresses when asked, she said.
Welborn and Peterson allege the Department of Corrections did not meet the requirements outlined in the law to compile inmate addresses. Their efforts — which included sending a questionnaire to gather missing addresses — do not qualify as an attempt to compile all available information, they said.
The extent to which people in Nevada prisons are reallocated has significant implications on the population and, in turn, voting power communities across the state will have through the next decade.
Lawmakers are required to draw districts containing relatively equal populations and where inmates are counted can change the recorded population of legislative districts by thousands.
The percentage of addresses prison officials sent for redistricting varied by facility. They provided 644 addresses from Pershing County, where the Lovelock Correctional Center houses 1,345 inmates. They provided 449 from White Pine County, where the Ely State Prison houses 649 inmates.
“The State Demographer is obligated to not use information that it knows is inaccurate, and the Legislature and other governmental entities are obligated to not reapportion representation based upon the inaccurate population estimates,” Welborn and Peterson wrote.
“The Legislature cannot rely on current numbers provided by the State Demographer without violating the Nevada Constitution and subjecting the state to potential litigation.”
Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.