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Federal judge rules against North Florida “prison gerrymandering”

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In a first-of-its kind decision, a federal judge in Tallahassee has ordered that local voting districts in nearby Jefferson County be redrawn, saying their boundaries are unconstitutional because of a system critics call “prison gerrymandering.”

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Friday ruled against the county on a motion for summary judgment, effectively disposing of the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute, a nonprofit law group specializing in prisoners’ rights cases.

Walker’s 86-page opinion, announced Monday in an ACLU-FL news release, prohibits Jefferson County from using current districts for county commissioners and school board members. The judge ordered new districts submitted to him by April 4 that comply with state and federal law.

Jefferson County neighbors Leon County, home to Tallahassee, immediately to the east. It had an estimated population of just over 14,000 in 2013, according to Census figures.

Walker also is scheduled to sit on a three-judge panel this Friday to hear argument in a case brought by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown against the state’s recently redrawn congressional districts. Brown, a 23-year veteran of Congress, has said her new district violates federal voting laws by cutting down the influence of minority voters.

But POLITICO Florida also disclosed that state Rep. Janet Adkins, speaking privately to Republican activists last year, had said the new 5th Congressional District, which now stretches east-west from Jacksonville across north Florida, could be favorable to the GOP because it packs thousands of prison inmates into its new boundaries. In Florida, inmates can’t vote.

“It’s a perfect storm,” the Fernandina Beach Republican said, according to the POLITICO report. “You’re now reducing the percentage of minorities in that district and you’ve drawn it in such a fashion that perhaps a majority, or maybe not a majority, but a number of them will live in the prisons, thereby not being able to vote.” She later apologized for the comments.

Walker said the county’s districting scheme doesn’t “comport with the ‘one person, one vote’ principle articulated by the (U.S.) Supreme Court” and protected by the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

“Under the maps used for County Commission and School Board elections, enacted in 2013, the inmates at Jefferson Correctional Institution (JCI) make up 43.2% of the voting age population of Jefferson County’s District 3,” the news release said. “The remaining population in District 3 therefore wield much more political influence over local politics than residents living in the other four county districts.”

Nancy Abudu, Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement her organization is “thrilled to have won this decision on behalf of the people of Jefferson County, and to have struck a blow against one of the collateral effects of mass incarceration.”

Judge Walker’s ruling “holds that political maps can’t be drawn in a way that exploits the exploding populations of our prisons by using inmates who have no political influence over local politics to dilute the voting strength of local residents,” she said. “Those who engage in prison gerrymandering should be on notice that this unconstitutional practice is subject to challenge.”

Prison gerrymandering “leads to a dramatic distortion of representation at local and state levels, and creates an inaccurate picture of community populations for research and planning purposes,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan research group.

The Census Bureau “counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, though they are barred from voting in 48 states and return to their homes after being released,” its website says. “The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.”

The organization lists Jefferson as a prison-gerrymandered county, along with Baker, Columbia, DeSoto, Dixie, Hardee, Hendry, Santa Rosa, Sumter, Union and Walton, all generally rural or lower-population areas.

Four residents of Jefferson County – Kate Calvin, former Jefferson County Commissioner John NelsonCharles Parrish and Lonnie Griffin – and local civic organization Concerned United People (CUP) first challenged the county’s districts one year ago.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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