Is the Census counting prisoners in the right place?

With legislative leaders about to begin redrawing legislative and congressional districts to reflect the 2010 Census, the General Assembly is considering a related issue: Where should prison inmates be counted?

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund says Connecticut is one of 47 states that practices “prison-based gerrymandering” by counting inmates where they are confined, not where are they from.

Under state law, the prisoners are not legal residents of the communities where they are held, nor can they vote in those communities, even if they are serving time for misdemeanors and still have the legal right to vote.

But the U.S. Census lists prisoners as residents of the communities where they were confined on April 1, 2010, the day when the Census Bureau took a figurative snapshot of the 3,574,097 people it counted in Connecticut.

The result is that voters who live in legislative districts with prisons, which typically are located in rural areas, wield more political clout than other voters, because their districts include thousands of prisoners ineligible to vote.

In a district where 15 percent of residents are incarcerated, the votes of every group of 85 residents carry the same weight as 100 residents in a district with no prisoners. And that violates the constitutional principle of “one man, one vote,” Dale Ho of the NAACP told the legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Monday.

The practice causes some inequities in Connecticut, though none as startling as the case of Anamosa, Iowa, a town whose four council districts or wards each represent about 1,400 people.

One of the wards includes the state’s largest penitentiary, with 1,300 prisoners. Only 58 residents in Ward 2 are non-prisoners, making Anamosa the poster child for census reform, Ho said.

A Ward 2 resident once woke up to find he’d been elected to the Anamosa council with just two write-in votes, Ho said, one from his wife and one from a neighbor.

Ho was accompanied to the public hearing by Rep. Charles Stallworth, D-Bridgeport, who complained that the populations of Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport are under-counted, because a majority of inmates are from the three largest cities.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the ranking Republican on the committee, seemed to listen more closely than other legislators. His 7th Senatorial District includes a half-dozen prisons in Enfield, Suffield and Somers.

Kissel said about 8,000 residents of the district are inmates.

According to recently released census data, his district has 100,005 residents, compared with 91,522 in the neighboring district represented by the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield.

After redistricting is completed later this year, each Senate district should have around 99,000 residents.

In drawing its districts for town council elections, Enfield ignored the local prisons, avoiding an Anamosa effect. But inmates are counted as residents in Kissel’s districts for legislative purposes.

Kissel said he is considering supporting legislation that would count the prisoners in the towns where they came from.

“My gut tells me it has some merit,” he said.

Besides Enfield, Somers and Enfield, the other towns with the most prison cells are Cheshire and East Lyme. Kissel said he expects opposition from legislators in other prison towns who fear a loss of state aid.

Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, said the proposed change seems to be an attempt to redirect state aid from communities with prisons to “the towns that are producing those criminals.” He said Cheshire would lose $2.8 million, a figure contested by others.

Peter Wagner, the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said the changes in state aid would be negligible, as the biggest aid programs–education cost sharing and road aid–re based on school population and road mileage.

“The basic principle of our democracy is that representation is distributed on the basis of population,” Wagner said in testimony submitted to the committee. “Crediting incarcerated people to the wrong location has the unfortunate and undemocratic result of creating a system of representation without population.”