Advocates Hope Prison-based Gerrymandering Will Be Addressed
A bill that would have forced the state to count prisoners in the cities or towns they lived in before they were incarcerated was not called for a vote by the Judiciary Committee, but some lawmakers, like Sen. Eric Coleman, believe there’s a chance it could be resurrected.
Coleman, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee has spent the session grappling with substantial issues like the death penalty and transgender identification. It was also questionable whether the measure had enough support to clear the committee, he said.
“We simply did not have the numbers in committee expressing a sentiment on behalf of bringing that to our agenda and taking action on it,” he said.
Currently the state counts inmates as residents of the town they are incarcerated in rather than where they lived prior to going to prison. The practice is usually called prison-based gerrymandering.
Coleman said it diminishes the political influence of voters in the state’s inner cities. Those voters tend to be from minority groups and prisons are typically located in rural, mostly-white communities, he said.
Bilal Dabir Sekou, associate professor of political science at the University of Hartford, used some statistics to illustrate the effect gerrymandering has on minorities. Black and Latino residents make up just 19 percent of the state’s population but are 72 percent of the inmate population, he said.
According to data from the 2000 Census, 75 percent of state’s prison cells are located in districts that are disproportionately white, he said. Most of the prisons are in five towns: Cheshire, East Lyme, Enfield, Somers, and Suffield, he said. Together, those towns are technically home to just 1 percent of the state’s prisoners, he said.
“Fifteen percent of one district was incarcerated, giving every group of 85 residents near the prison as much political influence as 100 residents as any other district in the state,” he said.
Coleman said those communities are generally not that welcoming to released prisoners. They do not offer re-entry programs or affordable housing, he said. Instead, the former-inmates usually return to the towns they came from, he said.
“What it means for those communities is a diminishment of political influence and because our system of municipal financing is often times based on population, it means that Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and other like communities stand to lose in terms of grants and other funding,” he said.
Rep. Tim O’Brien, D-New Britain, said that prison-based gerrymandering is a distortion of representation at the Connecticut’s Capitol. He pointed to a disconnect in the state’s laws.
There is a law that requires inmates who are eligible and willing to vote, to do so by absentee ballot in the municipality they came from, he said. But when it comes to population counts for legislative districts they are counted where they are incarcerated, he said.
“So the laws are structurally designed to take away voting strength for people who live primarily in the big cities. It’s an unfair system, it’s an untenable system from a fairness point of view and we have to address this problem,” he said.
Without the practice, seven of the state’s House districts would not meet the federal requirements for their minimum population.
While every House district in the state should have 22,553 residents, District 59 has on 19,200 residents if prisoners are not counted, according to a prepared statement from Connecticut Common Cause.
LaResse Harvey, policy director of A Better Way Foundation, said the discussion would be different if the towns that count the inmates were actually representing them by having things like support housing, subsidized housing, substance abuse facilities and halfway houses.
“We wouldn’t be here talking about this today because then they would truly be representing those individuals. But since they are not, I think we need to close the gap and start having our representatives, our House and Senators, come and stand for us,” she said.
The issue is important to Connecticut and the nation as a whole, Dale Ho of the NAACP Legal Defense fund, told reporters on Monday. Counted together, the country’s prison population would be larger than the 15 smallest states in the nation and would represent five electoral votes, he said.
Last year three states—Maryland, Delaware and New York—adopted legislation to correct the problem. Despite the bill not clearing the Judiciary Committee before its deadline, Coleman said he hasn’t abandoned the cause.
During a Monday press conference on the issue, Coleman said he has brought the issue to the attention of the leadership of Reapportionment Committee, which was scheduled to meet later today.
He also said the language may find its way into another bill.
“I’m here this morning because many of us are still very much interested in pursuing the cause that this bill represents,” he said.
Following the committee’s meeting House Speaker Chris Donovan, said he would be open to the Reapportionment Committee looking at the issue. However, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said it was not a good idea.
“I think that logic dictates that we count them the way they’ve been counted under the Census. Undoing that logic opens up a can of worms,” he said.
Doing so may require the committee to look in to other issues like University of Connecticut students being counted as residents of Storrs regardless of what town they came from, he said.
“You throw a rock in a lake and ripples go out very far. I think this would have a ripple effect,” he said.