Despite a ruling from a federal court in Florida calling the practice unconstitutional, Connecticut’s General Assembly failed to pass a bill last month to end prison gerrymandering in the Nutmeg State.
The bill was raised for debate in the Senate on April 27, but fours hours into the debate the bill was tabled when Republicans continued to introduce amendments. It didn’t get called again for a vote before the regular legislative session adjourned on May 4.
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the open government group Common Cause Connecticut, said she was “very disappointed” the General Assembly didn’t follow the lead of other states in banning gerrymandering.
Prison gerrymandering was recently litigated and found to be unconstitutional by a federal court in Florida, which ruled that counting inmates as residents for the purposes of drawing districts violated the “one man, one vote” principle.
Advocates felt the court ruling was a huge victory, pointing out that several states, including prison-heavy California and New York, have banned prison gerrymandering.
Currently, Connecticut prisoners are counted as constituents of the district in which their prison is located, rather than the city or town where they lived before they were incarcerated.
Quickmire said she “took some solace” in that the bill got further in this year’s General Assembly than it has in previous years. “However,’’ she added, “there is no reason for it not to become law in Connecticut. It comes down to a question of fairness.”
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, agrees.
He said the reason he pushed for the bill is “in solely and simply for the interest of fairness and accuracy.” He said many prisoners are incarcerated for very short periods of time and it is “unfair” to count them as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated.
In opposition to the bill, among others, was Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, who said “more homework” needed to be done. He referred to the bill as “legislative redistricting.” McLachlan added: “This (legislation) is an idea that isn’t ready for the big time.”
While Connecticut prisons are located almost exclusively in rural towns with predominantly white residents, the prison population consists disproportionately of Blacks and Latinos from urban areas. There were about 10,283 Blacks and Latinos and 5,092 white inmates last month in Connecticut prisons.
During public hearing testimony about the bill, Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said prison gerrymandering gives extra representation to those communities that house prisons.
And Ingrid Alvarez-DiMarzo, state director of the Hispanic Federation, testified the practice “unfairly distorts communities of color’s representation in state and local politics.”
Alvarez-DiMarzo’s organization is just one of the groups that support legislation that would require Connecticut’s prisons to register the last known address of each of their residents with the Secretary of the State. The political boundaries would then be redrawn in 2021 using that information.
Data provided by Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission shows that in Somers and Suffield, a significant portion of the towns’ overall populations — 20 and 13 percent respectively — reside in prison. Both towns have prison populations of over 2,000.
According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, the 59th House District in Enfield — the town with the state’s largest prison population — registered more than 3,300 African-American and Latinos as constituents. However, because district includes three prisons, 72 percent of those African-Americans and 60 percent of those Latinos are not actually residents of the town.