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Coalition Backs Bill to End Prison Gerrymandering

Counting prisoners as local residents gives communities with prisons some extra representation in politics. (Sean Hobson/flickr)
Counting prisoners as local residents gives communities with prisons some extra representation in politics. (Sean Hobson/flickr)
February 12, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. - A coalition of organizations wants Connecticut to end the practice of counting prisoners as residents of the towns where the prisons are located. It's known as "prison gerrymandering," and civil-rights advocates say it undermines the principle of "one person, one vote."

Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said a disproportionate number of incarcerated people come from urban minority communities, but prisons are located in predominately white, rural areas.

"There are state House districts that are 10 or 15 percent incarcerated," he said. "So, every nine people who live near some of the prisons in Enfield are represented in the Legislature as if they were 10 people anywhere else in the state."

The coalition, which includes the Hispanic Federation, the ACLU and the League of Women Voters, has prepared a bill it hopes to see introduced in the state Legislature.

Some lawmakers are concerned that counting prisoners as residents of their home communities rather than where they are imprisoned will deprive their constituents of funds distributed by census count. However, Wagner pointed out that the draft bill specifically states that adjusted redistricting data would not be used to affect any state or federal funding formulas.

"So, this is a bill that's about fair representation for everyone in the state who does not live immediately next to a large prison," he said.

Although people serving time for felony convictions are barred from voting, about half of prisoners in Connecticut are serving short sentences for misdemeanors or are awaiting trial and are eligible to vote by absentee ballot in their home districts.

Bills to end prison gerrymandering have been introduced over the past five years but have never come to a vote in the Legislature. Wagner said he is optimistic that this one will become law.

"Because we're doing it early, there's more people talking about it," he said, "and I think that the Legislature understands this is a problem that they have to fix - and I'd like to think that they want to get ahead of this problem."

Similar bills have been passed in New York, Maryland, Delaware and California.

The proposed bill is online at prisonersofthecensus.org.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - CT