A threat to Maryland's progressive prisoner representation law

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Why is a conservative foundation in Iowa seeking to roll back a civil rights law in Maryland?

Three weeks ago, a federal lawsuit funded by the Legacy Foundation was filed against Maryland's proposed congressional redistricting plan. But the lawyers seem particularly concerned with condemning Maryland's "No Representation Without Population Act," a first-in-the-nation civil rights law that essentially ends the process of providing conservative communities in which prisons have been built with legislative districts larger than the number of voters who live there — at the expense of inmates' home communities.


Even worse, the lawsuit inexplicably alleges that the law, rather than increasing the power of minority communities, somehow hurts them. So, what is this all about?

For the past few decades, minority communities have been devastated by public policies that have had detrimental and unequal effects. Racial profiling, mandatory minimum sentencing and the disparate sentencing between possessors of crack and powdered cocaine have made headlines in recent years. However, one policy that has hurt minority communities and received very little attention is the counting of prisoners in the districts in which they are incarcerated, as opposed to their home districts, for political redistricting purposes. Maryland is now at the forefront of this battle.


Individuals who are incarcerated lose the right to vote — in some states, permanently. This has a huge impact; the size of Maryland's prison system, for example, tripled from 7,731 in 1980 to 24,186 in 2003, and African American men in Maryland are imprisoned at nearly eight times the rate of Caucasian men. (Inmates in Maryland cannot vote until they are released from prison and successfully complete parole and probation.)

While the merits of taking away an incarcerated person's vote may seem fair to some, few think that the communities from which incarcerated people hail should likewise be punished by having their voting power diminished. But that is precisely what happens.

When a person from an urban and largely minority community, such as Baltimore, is convicted, that individual is moved to a prison to serve his or her sentence. These prisons are often located in rural, primarily white, communities. When congressional districts are drawn to ensure there is a roughly equal number of people in each congressional district, prisoners are not counted as a part of their home district, but instead are counted as part of the population at the location of their prison — even though they cannot vote in that district.

This policy drains the political power of the incarcerated individual's home community and adds to the political power of the area where the prison is located.

Understanding the deleterious effects of this policy, Maryland enacted the No Representation Without Population Act in 2010. By doing so, Maryland finally required that prisoners be counted in the communities from which they came and to which they are likely to return when they regain their right to vote. The No Representation Without Population Act was spearheaded by the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and widely supported by state and national civil rights groups, including the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP and the ACLU of Maryland.

The No Representation Without Population Act was implemented to correct injustice. It is perhaps not surprising that those funding this lawsuit are attempting to fool Marylanders. If the act is struck down, conservative districts with large prisons will once again get extra credit for the prison populations — and prisoners' home districts will receive less than a fair and equal voice in the political process. The result would be minority communities that are drained of their political power — again.

Ajmel Quereshi is supervisory attorney and adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic. Email: Athar Haseebullah is a student attorney at the clinic.