Prison gerrymandering end one step closer to reality

Advocacy Director Chaundra Van Dyk

In 2021, the Illinois General Assembly banned the practice of prison gerrymandering as a part of a criminal justice package. Since its passage, the CHANGE Illinois Action Fund and community partners learned that the last-known addresses of people who are incarcerated, which are needed for the law to work, are not readily available. To address this challenge, the CHANGE Illinois Action Fund has been working with state Rep. La Shawn Ford to introduce HB1496 and ensure the law works as intended and that representation is restored to people who are incarcerated and their communities at the time of the next census.

Today, our legislation to help improve the implementation of the prison gerrymandering ban passed out of committee in Springfield. We look forward to a full vote in the Illinois House of Representatives and will be working for its passage there and in the Illinois Senate. For more information about the effort, please see testimony below prepared by CHANGE Illinois Action Fund’s Advocacy Director, Chaundra Van Dyk, for delivery before the Illinois House Judiciary – Criminal Committee meeting March 9, 2023.

CHANGE Illinois Action Fund Testimony:

 Implementing the ban on prison gerrymandering

Illinois House Judiciary Criminal Committee

To: Chair Justin Slaughter and committee members

From: Chaundra Van Dyk, Advocacy Director, CHANGE Illinois Action Fund

Thank you, Chair Justin Slaughter and all Judiciary Criminal Committee members, for providing an opportunity for me to testify about the importance of the proper implementation of the ban on prison gerrymandering in Illinois. My name is Chaundra Van Dyk and I serve as the Advocacy Director of CHANGE Illinois and the CHANGE Illinois Action Fund. Both are nonpartisan nonprofits. CHANGE Illinois is a coalition, and alongside our diverse partners, we have advocated in favor of a fair redistricting process that is impartial and open to the public, and for ending the practice of prison gerrymandering in Illinois.

To end the practice of counting people where they are incarcerated rather than in their home communities for the 2031 redistricting cycle, Illinois lawmakers outlawed prison gerrymandering for state senate and representative districts in 2021 by passing the No Representation Without Population Act. By doing this, Illinois took a bold step and joined the growing number of states that have banned the practice of prison gerrymandering to restore representation to people who are temporarily incarcerated. 

According to the law as it stands, the Illinois Department of Corrections is in charge of compiling and keeping track of everyone residing in its facilities. The list of addresses must be sent by IDOC to the Illinois State Board of Elections, which will subsequently make the information available for the state remapping in 2031.

However, after numerous meetings with senior IDOC officials, it has become clear that a minimum amount of address data is available and usable for this purpose. We all have an interest in making sure the data is collected so we can successfully restore representation to people who are incarcerated.

To meet these challenges and ensure a successful end to prison gerrymandering, CHANGE Illinois Action Fund worked with Rep. La Shawn Ford to introduce HB1496, which would help fix these critical issues by ensuring that any last-known addresses collected at the local level are transmitted to the Illinois Department of Corrections, expanding the types of addresses allowed, from last known and legal residents, to include addresses collected for post-release programs, and ensuring that people who are in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections have access to and the ability to update and submit their last-known addresses with the department. After we filed the legislation, we met with the Illinois Department of Corrections, a representative from the county courts, and Illinois Secretary of State’s office and no one raised any objections to these proposed changes. 

We applaud our state legislators for ending the discriminatory practice known as prison gerrymandering. The state is establishing a precedent for change, and it is our responsibility to work together to ensure this reform is properly implemented. CHANGE Illinois and our collaborative partners remained committed to ensuring the ban on prison gerrymandering is implemented successfully by 2031. 

On a personal level, as a native of the North Lawndale community located on the West Side of Chicago, and as an advocate for underserved communities across Illinois, I know firsthand the effects of mass incarceration and the value of belonging to a community. In addition to depriving communities of fair representation, the practice of counting people at the prison where they are being housed rather than in their home community frequently leaves those who are incarcerated feeling as though they are not part of their community. Residents in areas like North Lawndale consequently feel misrepresented and disregarded.

The proposed changes in the bill we’re discussing today will allow community groups to continue to work with local and state agencies to ensure that everyone in Illinois is counted in their home communities, and are given the proper representation they so richly deserve. Doing so will give people of underserved neighborhoods new hope by giving those who are imprisoned and their loved ones a sense of community and belonging.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you about this today.