HARTFORD, CT — The Democratic leaders in the General Assembly pledged support Wednesday for changing the voting districts in which Connecticut counts prison inmates this year, before those districts are locked in place for another decade.
Senate President Martin Looney and House Speaker Matt Ritter appeared on the steps of the state Capitol with members of the NAACP and the Connecticut ACLU to promote a bill that would require the state to record prisoners as members of the communities they came from rather than the towns they are incarcerated in.
The concept, which lawmakers have considered but not acted on for years, has a sort of expiration date this year as the legislature begins the once-a-decade process of remapping Connecticut’s voting districts.
“The reality is, this year we have to pass that bill, make that change because — talk about time sensitive — if we don’t do it now, it won’t have an impact for another 10 years,” Looney said. “It’s a matter of justice. It’s a matter of equity.”
Although Looney and Ritter have long-supported the concept, their public appearance Wednesday signals it is more likely to be voted on this year. Both leaders have influence over which bills are raised for floor votes in their chambers. The bill is currently awaiting action in the Senate, where proponents say it may be raised as soon as next week.
“This is the year you have to do it,” Ritter said. “When it is foremost in people’s minds and when it is most relevant.”
Proponents say the current law results in “prison gerrymandering” because it diminishes the legislative representation of the cities where most incarcerated people are often from and inflates the population — and thus, the representation — of the more rural communities where many state prisons are located.
In 2018, the NAACP filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the policy was unconstitutional but the civil rights group later withdrew the complaint amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. During the press conference Wednesday, Corrie Betts, criminal justice chair of the Connecticut NAACP, said it was urgent the legislature change the law this session.
“Prison gerrymandering is discriminatory, acting like a modern-day three-fifths clause,” Betts said. “It reduces the representation and political power of Black and Latino communities in Connecticut cities like New Haven and Hartford. [They] see their votes count for less while largely white prison communities see their votes count for more. Think about that.”
The bill is likely to see some opposition if it is raised for a floor vote. When the proposal was passed out of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Rob Sampson of Southington, said he did not see a reason to change the law.
Sampson said the bill introduced several problems.
“Essentially what this bill aims to do is ignore the fact that people actually do reside at an address, even if that happens to be a prison location,” Sampson said last month.
In prior years, some representatives of towns with correctional facilities have also expressed concerns that the resulting reduction in their population counts could impact the per-capita grants they received.
Although the bill’s fiscal estimate includes no projected impact to municipalities, Looney and Ritter both said they would be willing to consider eventual “accommodations” for towns who feel they have been penalized by the change. Looney said those towns had been enjoying a windfall from the policy for years.
“On per-capita grants, they have had an artificial increase in their population. The cities, the six or seven cities where most of the people who are in prison come from, have seen an undercount because of this for years,” Looney said.
Sen. Mae Flexer, a Killingly Democrat whose district includes Brooklyn Correctional Institution, said the bill would see some of her “wrongly-counted” constituents transferred out of her district. She urged lawmakers to support it anyway.
“I hope that all of my colleagues who have prisons in their districts will recognize the unfairness of the way we’ve been doing this for so long, recognize this as an inherently racist policy, and support Senate Bill 753 this year,” she said.