Opponents of so-called “prison gerrymandering” plan to make one last push to change where Connecticut counts prison inmates before the legislature starts its reapportionment process this year and locks in its voting districts for another decade.
Connecticut and other states count prison inmates as residents of the town where they are incarcerated rather than the town where they lived.
So if a New Britain voter is convicted of a felony and incarcerated in Somers, the state counts him in Somers when lawmakers map out the state voting districts.
The policy raises questions of equity and representation.
Opponents say it artificially boosts the influence of predominantly white towns with prisons while diluting the impact of the largely Black and brown cities.
“We can talk about equity all we want publicly but never talk about what it means to have a system like this that is obviously inequitable,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Throughout his years in the legislature, Winfield has tried unsuccessfully to change the rules so inmates are counted in the towns they come from and generally return to when they are released from prison. This year, the issue has a unique urgency as leaders in the legislature gear up to complete the once-in-a-decade task of remapping the contorted puzzle pieces of Connecticut’s voting districts.
Four Democrats and four Republicans tweak the voting maps every 10 years following the national census. Here in Connecticut, redistricting is a more bipartisan operation than in other states, but both sides will be angling to draw the lines to cement control of districts. Eventually, they will clash and bring in a ninth member to break any ties. Sometimes the process ends in court battles.
The general idea is to periodically adjust the districts to make sure every one has an equal number of voters. That way, every voter gets an equal say in Congress and the state Capitol.
Senate President Martin Looney is one of the eight legislative leaders expected to participate in this year’s reapportionment panel. Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, hopes to see the law on counting prison inmates changed before the group gets to work.
“This is the year in that, if we don’t do it this year, it’s not relevant again for 10 years. So there is time sensitivity to it this year,” he said. “I certainly support it.”
However, the change has been met with significant resistance in the legislature, in part due to concerns over its fiscal impact it would have on towns that house prisons.
When the General Assembly considered the proposal in 2016, the Office of Fiscal Analysis concluded it would likely result in a “potentially significant loss of state and federal aid to any town with large prison populations.”
Testifying against another proposal in 2019, Cheshire Town Manager Sean Kimball told the Government Administration and Elections Committee that his town expected the change to cause a significant reduction of its Education Cost Sharing grants because “Cheshire has the dubious distinction of being a prison town.”
Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican whose district includes several prisons, did not immediately return calls for comment on this story.
If passed now, the impact of the proposal would be somewhat mitigated by the state’s shrinking inmate population. This month, the Correction Department’s total offender population was near 9,100. That’s a steep drop from its highwater mark of 19,894 in 2008.
Still, proponents of changing the law say the effort is more a matter of conscience than wallet. Mike Lawlor spent years heading the state Judiciary Committee before leaving the legislature to advise former Gov. Dannel Malloy on criminal justice issues. He downplayed the monetary impact of the change.
“The practical difference is relatively small. The symbolic difference is relatively big,” said Lawlor, now an associate professor at the University of New Haven. “I think that’s the sticking point for a lot of people. They’re very uncomfortable with the symbolism of treating persons who are incarcerated as real people.”
A proposal to switch where inmates are counted for the sake of representation, but hold prison towns financially harmless had little traction in the General Assembly, Winfield said. Often an advocate on prison issues, Winfield said he finds himself the de-facto state senator for many of the state’s incarcerated people, regardless of where they are counted.
“While they’re in prison? Most of them are writing me. They’re not writing the people who ostensibly represent them,” he said. “Technically, they’re not mine. So the people who I do represent, lose some of my time and effectiveness because also I’m working for people who I don’t represent. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that’s how it works.”
The leaders of both of Connecticut’s legislative chambers expressed support for changing the law in interviews this week.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Democrat from Hartford, said he introduced a bill on the subject early in his own legislative career. But neither Ritter nor Looney would speculate on the likelihood of the law changing before they got to work on this year’s redistricting process. Looney said the issue does not always fall along party lines.
“Not all Democrats represent urban areas that would benefit from this. We have a diverse caucus and this is a state dominated by suburban and rural areas. The urban areas are a relatively small part of the state’s population. But it’s certainly a fight worth taking up again as a matter of justice,” Looney said.
In 2018, the NAACP filed a lawsuit in federal court calling the policy unconstitutional and seeking to force the state of Connecticut to change it. The civil rights group later dropped the suit, choosing to lobby for the state to change its own policies ahead of this year’s district reapportionment, according to the Associated Press.
Representatives of the NAACP did not return calls or emails for comment on this story.
Winfield said he intended to continue his efforts to get the bill passed, but he was not sure that waiting on the legislature was the civil rights group’s best option if it wanted to see the law changed.
“The legislature, it just refuses. Connecticut has the name Land of Steady Habits for a reason,” Winfield said. “My predecessor in the House, Bill Dyson, he was running the bill. I’ve been there 12 years. I think I’ve run it nine times. That tells you something.”