The Connecticut General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee approved legislation to abolish prison gerrymandering on Wednesday. The legislation now awaits a vote in the state Senate.
The committee heard the bill, S.B. 753, in early March. The bill seeks to include incarcerated individuals within the legislative districts of their place of residence before incarceration for census purposes. Current census policies include incarcerated individuals within the legislative districts of their prisons.
Advocates said that since prisons are usually located in areas that are rural and have a large white population, incarcerated people are simultaneously disenfranchised — they are not allowed to vote — and boosting these districts’ legislative power by adding to their population count. The Yale Law School Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic joined the Connecticut NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut in support of this bill.
“Prison gerrymandering diminishes the political power of urban communities and discriminates against Black and brown voters by denying them the constitutional guarantee of one person one vote,” Natasha Brunstein LAW ’22 said at the hearing.
Advocates of the bill said it is particularly important to pass this legislation because of its potential impact on the 2020 U.S. Census. The deadline for the Census Bureau to redraw legislative districts based on populations has been delayed to no earlier than Sept. 30, 2021, because of the pandemic. If the state legislature passes this legislation, the bill’s changes can then be reflected in the 2020 Census.
Kelly Moore, interim senior policy counsel of ACLU of Connecticut, said that if maps are not redistricted now, districts would be gerrymandered for the next decade.
The testimonies heard by the committee were overwhelmingly in favor of the bill. Of the over 30 written testimonies submitted prior to the meeting, no one submitted a testimony in opposition.
Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, said that prison gerrymandering disproportionately affects communities of color that make up the majority of incarcerated persons. As of Jan. 1, 42.7 percent of incarcerated people in Connecticut were Black, and 26.4 percent were Hispanic.
Connecticut Sen. Douglas McCrory also expressed support for the bill, saying legislative district populations are important because they determine how much resources are directed to the area. McCrory said that the current practice leads to a “false count” of the population.
Still, Sen. Rob Sampson from Cheshire said at the meeting that while he agrees with the bill’s overarching objectives, he was not in support of the bill in its current form. He highlighted logistical concerns with the bill, and asked how people who did not initially reside in Connecticut but were incarcerated in the state were to be counted.
“It just leads to a lot of questions,” Sampson said. “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?”
In response, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said that though some prison sentences last a lifetime, most of them do not. Merrill said it is therefore “most sensible” to count incarcerated people within the districts they last resided.
As of last week, there were 8,960 incarcerated individuals in Connecticut.
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