Yesterday’s most important House development was not the absurd Ilhan Omar spectacle that could have doubled as a Veep episode—as the Democrats and Republicans went blow for blow in an unforced error arms race—but a serious attempt to eliminate a fundamental injustice in this country. Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) introduced an amendment that would end prison gerrymandering. You probably didn’t hear about it, but you may have heard about two congressmen talking about Nickelback.
As of seven hours after the debate on the amendment, this is what Googling “Mark Pocan prison gerrymandering” returns.
As you can see, the relevant results run out before the end of the first page. Here is “Mark Pocan Nickelback.”
Can’t imagine why a majority of the population does not have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in mass media.
I didn’t set out to critique the mainstream media in this article, but after stumbling over this reality doing research for the piece, I had to highlight this contrast as to what the ultimate decision makers in major media truly prioritize. This amendment is a major upgrade for democracy, and the only thing most media is reporting out of this story is one anecdote about a Canadian band who hasn’t been relevant as anything more than a punchline since the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency.
This is what Mark Pocan was actually talking about, not Nickelback.
I’ll let the experts over at Prison Policy Initiative explain why this is such a big deal:
The way the Census Bureau counts people in prison creates significant problems for democracy and for our nation’s future. It 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.
The 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. The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.
The Bureau’s approach to counting incarcerated people dates back to the beginning of the census, when it was important only to count the number of people in each state to ensure equal representation in Congress. Congressional apportionment relied on the comparative populations of the states, not where people were relative to each other within each state. Now that Census data are used for redistricting at all levels of government, the specific location of populations is critical. The prison population has risen exponentially in the past couple of decades; counting the people in prison in the wrong place now undermines the Supreme Court’s requirement that political power be apportioned on the basis of population. The process of drawing fair and equal districts fails when the underlying data are flawed.
The United States of America incentivizes districts to build prisons, and then maintain large prison populations in order to artificially inflate those districts’ very real political power.
Here are some facts on who the United States of America puts in prison:
— Even though all races use drugs at the same rate, 57% of those incarcerated for a drug offense in state prisons are black or Latinx (both minority groups comprise 31.1% of the population).
— Of people charged by the federal government with selling powder cocaine in 2016, 30% were black, 62% were Latinx, and only 7% were white.
— Of people charged by the federal government with selling crack cocaine in 2016, 83% were African-American.
— White people get tons of sympathy in the media for America’s present opioid epidemic, but only 16% of offenders in federal heroin cases were white, compared to 40% black and 42% Latinx.
— 97% of people charged with drug crimes plead guilty.
— 41 U.S. states have higher incarceration rates than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
— The United States jails more of its people than anyone in the world, housing 22% of the globe’s prisoners, yet only 4.4% of its population.
— Roughly half of our prisoners are non-violent drug offenders.
This kind of intrinsic American evil inspired the Nazis. Adolph Hitler said so in Mein Kampf:
“There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but [the US], in which an effort is made to consult reason at least partially. By refusing immigrants on principle to elements in poor health, by simply excluding certain races from naturalization, it professes in slow beginnings a view that is peculiar to the People’s State.”
Mark Pocan should be commended for advancing this policy to the middle of the criminal justice reform debate. Given that Mitch “I can vote on whatever I want” McConnell ultimately controls all legislation in Congress, this is dead on arrival if it reaches the Senate, but they are building something here. Come 2020, Democrats need a plan to truly transform America into the country it purports (and fails) to be, and this amendment must be part of it.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.