In 2021, Connecticut’s legislators will undertake the legislative redistricting process that must occur every ten years. Before they do, they have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to eliminate an unjust and discriminatory redistricting practice that has no place in our state: prison gerrymandering.
“Prison gerrymandering” is a simple concept. When drawing districts, Connecticut counts the vast majority of people in their home communities. But Connecticut currently considers incarcerated people as residents of the prisons where they are incarcerated, rather than of their home communities. This decision introduces significant unfairness into Connecticut’s redistricting process and has serious racial effects.
Incarcerated people in Connecticut have roots, families, and connections in their home communities, not the prison communities to which they are sent to serve their sentences. These prison towns are often on the other side of the state; incarcerated people will never patronize local businesses, interact with the local population, or use local services.
What’s more, for those people held in Connecticut’s prisons who retain the right to vote, state law explicitly provides that they must vote as residents of their home communities, recognizing their connections back home. Requiring incarcerated people to vote in their home communities but counting them as residents of prison districts for redistricting purposes is a gross injustice and denies them meaningful representation.
This would be objectionable enough, but prison gerrymandering also harms incarcerated people’s home communities. Because the people from these communities who are incarcerated are not counted as residents, these towns’ populations are artificially reduced, and they receive less representation and thus less political power.
In practice, this distortion of political power harms Black and Latinx voters. As shown in the maps below, incarcerated people tend to come from larger cities and towns, like Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, that have diverse, majority-minority populations. But prisons tend to be located in smaller towns or rural areas that are heavily white, like Enfield and Somers. These prison towns see their population, and political power, unfairly enhanced at the expense of urban areas. For example, as a direct result of prison gerrymandering, a New Haven resident’s vote counts for only about 85% of the vote of a resident of Enfield or Somers, as of 2010 data from the last redistricting cycle.
Home communities of incarcerated people (2010 DOC data)
Where people are incarcerated in Connecticut (2010 DOC data)
This result is harmful and unacceptable. But the General Assembly can fix this problem. Through legislation, Connecticut could count incarcerated people in their home communities, as they should be counted. Indeed, ten states across the country – including New York, New Jersey, and California – have already done so. This year, the Census Bureau is providing states additional data and tools to make doing so even easier. And if lawmakers act this session, they will ensure this issue is resolved before the redistricting process gets underway in earnest later this year.
Abolishing prison gerrymandering isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s what the Constitution demands. Prison gerrymandering violates the guarantee of “one person, one vote” contained in the federal and state constitutions and results in illegal malapportionment. If this practice is continued in the upcoming redistricting process, the state could find itself embroiled in costly, lengthy litigation.
Members of the General Assembly understand the urgency. Legislation to abolish prison gerrymandering, SB 753, has been introduced this session, attracting dozens of cosponsors. On March 29, it was approved by the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, the first time the bill has obtained committee approval since 2016.
SB 753 also has the support of a wide coalition of stakeholders. The NAACP Connecticut State Conference and the ACLU of Connecticut – which are represented in this fight by Yale Law School’s Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic, where I am a student – have opposed prison gerrymandering for years because of its harmful, racist effects. Other organizations that support abolishing prison gerrymandering this session include the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, CONECT, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Connecticut AFL-CIO, SEIU 1199 NE, the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and the Campaign Legal Center.
Our broad coalition of supporters demands action now. Legislative leadership must bring the bill to the floor for a vote, and the General Assembly has a crowded calendar. Connecticut voters concerned about this issue should call their legislators to express their support for SB 753 and urge that it receives a prompt vote before the session ends.
If the General Assembly doesn’t act by June, this unfair practice could be enshrined into law for another ten years. But finally abolishing prison gerrymandering is within reach. Let’s get it done.
Alex Boudreau is a Law Student Intern at the Yale Law School Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic.