Montana State Capitol File

A pair of legislators speak in a corner of the rotunda in the Montana State Capitol on Feb. 10 in Helena.

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HELENA — The Districting and Apportionment Commission held the first of two public hearings Thursday establishing criteria on how to craft state legislative and congressional districts, with a heavy emphasis on how to count people in prison.

The commission heard public comment about the timeline of when work would begin on making district maps, the criteria on how districts — both legislative and congressional — would be drawn and on the reallocation of incarcerated people.

Data from the 2020 Census granted Montana a second congressional seat for the first time since 1993, but how to split the state into two congressional districts — and how to equally represent districts across Montana — relies on hard census data. The Districting and Apportionment Commission has proposed, as part of its redistricting criteria, to reallocate people jailed in the Montana State Prison based on their original address rather than the address of the prison in Deer Lodge.

The commission is waiting on hard census data before the process of drafting district maps can get under way. The release of this data, which will be available to the public, is set for Aug. 16. From then the commission has 90 days to compile maps of what the districts could look like.

The next public hearing will be held at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Helena with a Zoom participation available.

Kendra Miller, a member of the commission, said in an interview that incarcerated people are usually counted as residents of the jail or prison where they are sentenced. This gives an area with a large prison population a disproportionate number with people who cannot vote. People convicted of a felony who are incarcerated cannot vote in Montana.

There are roughly 1,600 inmates in Deer Lodge. The population of Powell County, where Deer Lodge is, was 6,890 in 2019.

The process to reallocate incarcerated people across the state would rely on geocoding, Miller said. This process, also known as address geocoding, relies on information like an address to place something or someone to a physical location. The plan, Miller said, would be to identify imprisoned people in their home districts rather than in prison for the purposes of redistricting.

“Certainly one of the known complications is that we might not be able to get last-known addresses of some inmates,” Miller said during the commission meeting.

If state officials cannot not get last-known addresses from incarcerated people, they could possibly allocate them to counties around the state at random to make representation more equal.

Only two states have reallocated incarcerated people — New York and Maryland — to better distribute their imprisoned populations for redistricting purposes. Both states did so in 2010 using geocoding.

Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, Zoomed into the meeting for public comment. Kajstura urged caution when using geocoding. In the case of New York and Maryland, Kajstura said some incarcerated peoples’ info was incomplete, lacking a full address or ZIP code, which led to the geocoding software rejecting the information and making allocation all the more difficult. In that case, she said, they counted the imprisoned people at large, preventing them from exclusion.

“Better to count people at large so that you’re not excluding anybody,” Kajstura said on Zoom.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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