Back in 2001, Gulf County commissioners sought advice from the state attorney general’s office wondering if they could exclude the county’s hefty prison population when they drew up new districts. The AG’s office said no, that in fact state law required that the county include the prisoners.
So Gulf County commissioners took the sensible course. They ignored the attorney general’s opinion.
“They don’t pay taxes, they don’t have the right to vote, there is no reason to count them,” longtime commissioner Nathan Peters Jr. told a reporter with Newhouse Newspapers.
A few other counties have also stopped considering prison head counts when they redraw county commission lines. The Attorney General’s 2001 opinion did suggest “ as this question is controlled by state law, the legislature may wish to consider whether Florida’s prison population should be included in population counts for purposes of redistricting.”
The late state Sen. Larcenia J. Bullard of Miami gave it a shot in 2010, but her bill “requiring the legislature to adjust federal decennial census figures to include prisoners in the geographic areas where they last resided before incarceration rather than the facility where they were residing at the time of the federal census redrawn…” didn’t so much as a committee hearing.
The problem, Wagner said, evolved gradually over the years until a booming prison population began to seriously skew state and local representation. In the years between the 2000 Census and the one in 2010, Florida’s inmate population grew some 42 percent, while the state’s overall population expanded by 17 percent.
But Florida legislators seem reluctant to meddle with a redistricting formula and that ever-so-perfect gerrymandering software that has created so many unassailable districts for its members. It’s not about creating equitable representation. It’s about avoiding anything that might put safe legislative seats at risk.
As Wagner said, “They’re just afraid they might screw up the outcome.”