Claiming prisoners as Cranston constituents has a downside for Rhode Island city’s voting rights

April 13, 2010  

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Bruce Reilly, DARE (401) 286-1507
Peter Wagner, PPI (413) 527-0845

Today, Maryland became the first state in the nation to pass a bill adjusting their census data to count prisoners at their home addresses. Bills are also pending, or in process, in seven states other than Rhode Island, where nearly 4,000 people are currently at the state prison in Cranston.

The residents of Cranston who don’t live next to the state’s prison complex have their votes diluted in the city council, charges a new report by Prison Policy Initiative.

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the correctional facility, even though state law says they are residents of their homes. When state and local governments use Census prison counts to pad legislative and council districts, they enhance the weight of a vote cast by the residents who live next to prison at the expense of all other residents.

Cranston City Council wards are each supposed to contain 13,212 residents, but the 6th Ward claims 3,252 incarcerated people as residents. By padding the 6th Ward with prison populations, the Cranston City Council unintentionally granted every group of 3 people who live near the prison as much influence over the future of Cranston as 4 residents in other parts of the city.

Whether prisoners are in fact residents of Cranston has been controversial. “Rhode Island law says that prisoners remain residents of their home addresses,” said Bruce Reilly, Organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). The Cranston School Department appears to agree, recently declaring that Joey Correa’s incarceration in Cranston does not make him a resident of the town which would entitle him to enroll his 2nd grade daughter in the local schools.

Some Cranston politicians, fearing a loss of political clout, are opposing a measure pending in the legislature (H7833/S2452) would require state and municipal districts to be based on Census data adjusted to count incarcerated people at home. Supporters include DARE, ACLU, Common Cause, and the Urban League. House Majority Leader, Nicholas Mattiello (Cranston) is supportive of the bill.

“Using incarcerated persons to pad districts denies the principle of one person, one vote and dilutes the voting rights of most Cranston residents. Cranston’s lopsided districts are a glaring example of a nationwide problem caused by counting incarcerated persons as residents of the prison town,” said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos in Boston. A hearing has been held in the House Judiciary Committee, where Rep. Joe Almeida sponsored the bill. A hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Senator Harold Metts is the lead sponsor, is still awaiting a hearing sometime within the next several weeks. The General Assembly is on vacation next week.

“The impact of what I call prison-based gerrymandering on state legislative districts has gotten all of the attention,” said Aleks Kajstura, legal director of The Prison Policy Initiative. “But I’m glad that the authors of those bills had the foresight to include municipal districts in the bill. This new analysis helps demonstrate what the Prison Policy Initiative has long argued: Ending prison-based gerrymandering benefits everyone.”

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