With the once-in-a-decade process of remapping legislative districts set to begin this year, supporters of ending “prison gerrymandering” in Connecticut stressed the importance of passing the change this session during a Wednesday public hearing.
Connecticut, like many other states, counts prisoners as living in the town where they are incarcerated when it draws its legislative districts. Opponents call this practice, “prison gerrymandering.”
Because most incarcerated people come from cities, counting them in the predominantly white towns where the state’s prisons are often located deflates the legislative representation of cities and thus, disenfranchises the predominantly Black and brown voters who live in them.
Advocates have sought unsuccessfully to change the practice for years, but there is greater urgency this year as the legislature prepares to remap the voting districts to reflect the 2020 U.S. Census. Census figures are the foundation for drawing legislative districts.
The Government Administration and Elections Committee heard testimony on a bill to change the law during a hearing Wednesday. The bill would see prison inmates counted in the towns where they lived prior to incarceration.
In written testimony, Corrie Betts, criminal justice chair of the NAACP Connecticut State Conference, said inaction this year “would be simply unacceptable.”
“As you all know, this is the last legislative session before Connecticut’s redistricting process gets fully underway, leading to the adoption of new maps. Unless the General Assembly acts this session, there is a strong risk that Connecticut will lock in prison gerrymandering for the next decade, just as occurred in 2010,” Betts wrote.
Kelly Moore, interim senior policy counsel of ACLU of Connecticut, said the policy caused a transfer of political power from communities of color to white areas and should be corrected before lawmakers begin remapping.
“Prison gerrymandering is a serious injustice and it’s critical to solve this problem now with redistricting occurring later in the year. If you do not pass this bill this year, Connecticut’s districts will continue to be gerrymandered for the next decade,” Moore told the committee.
Although changing the policy in Connecticut has been controversial in the prior years, there was only nominal opposition expressed during the first four hours of the committee’s hearing.
More than 30 people submitted written testimony supporting the bill and no one submitted testimony in opposition ahead of the hearing.
During the hearing, Sen. Rob Sampson, one of the committee’s ranking Republican members, suggested he was not inclined to support the measure as it was written. He briefly questioned Secretary of the State Denise Merrill on the bill during her testimony.
“It just leads to a lot of questions. For example, if someone has a life sentence and they’re never returning to a town they lived in prior, does it make sense to count them as someone from the town of Ansonia or Farmington or wherever?” Sampson asked.
Merrill testified in support of the change, saying it would result in fairer and more accurate legislative districts. In response to Sampson’s question, she said it was a complicated question.
“Determining residency is sometimes a tricky problem. But I think the most sensible way of doing it is to count them where they last resided,” Merrill said. “That [incarceration] can be a very long time, you’re right, but most of the time it is not.”
Sampson said he had other questions about the proposal, like how best to count people from out of state who were incarcerated in Connecticut.
“The more questions I come up with the less I agree with [the bill], unfortunately,” he said.