Rhode Island mayor: Prisoners count as residents when it helps me, not when it helps them

Mayor sings one tune when the prison miscount benefits the town, and another when a 2nd grader wants to attend school where her father is locked up.

by Sara Mayeux, March 31, 2010

Here’s Mayor Allan Fung, explaining why he thinks the 3,000 inmates at the ACI prison should be counted as residents of Cranston, Rhode Island, come Census time:

“Those that are incarcerated at the ACI, particularly those that are here for a long sentence, have an impact on the services that we provide. Our police, fire and rescue make multiple runs to the prison. Under the proposal, none of these people would be counted for Cranston unless they lived here previously,” he said.

“There is nothing to even show that a person who finishes his or her sentence returns to their prior address. I cannot support a proposal that may disadvantage Cranston’s ability to get sorely needed resources.”

This quote certainly suggests that Mayor Fung would consider ACI inmate Joey Correa to be a Cranston resident. Yet, when Correa’s nine-year-old daughter recently asserted her right to attend a Cranston school, Mayor Fung suddenly switched his tune, telling reporters from a local TV station:

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“This individual is not a taxpayer to the city of Cranston, he’s in a situation where he’s incarcerated.”

Here are the facts: Jolina Correa is currently a second grader at Dutemple Elementary School in Cranston. Although she recently moved with her mother to nearby Providence, she was hoping to stay with her classmates at Dutemple next year, and since her father is incarcerated in Cranston, her parents thought she should be allowed to. (Her parents share joint custody, and ordinarily, Rhode Island law permits the parents to decide where the child will attend school in cases where they live in two different school districts.)

But Cranston officials recently denied her request to reenroll as a third grader next fall, stating that because she physically lives with her mother in Providence, she must enroll in the Providence public schools. The family is now appealing this decision to the state education commissioner.

The outcome of Jolina’s appeal will likely depend on particularities of Rhode Island family and education law. That’s because as a matter of the U.S. Constitution, there’s no question that Cranston is permitted to restrict enrollment in its local public schools to residents. For instance, in Martinez v. Bynum, 461 U.S. 321 (1983), the Supreme Court held:

The provision of primary and secondary education … is one of the most important functions of local government. Absent residence requirements, there can be little doubt that the proper planning and operation of the schools would suffer significantly. The State thus has a substantial interest in imposing bona fide residence requirements to maintain the quality of local public schools. … The Constitution permits a State to restrict eligibility for tuition-free education to its bona fide residents.

The legal question, then, is whether Jolina is, in fact, considered a “resident” of Cranston, by virtue of her father’s residence (albeit involuntary) within the Cranston city limits. And that’s a question that will depend on state law. Not being an expert on Rhode Island family and education law, I’m not sure how the case will or should turn out, but it will definitely be interesting to follow as it proceeds.

So, what about the fact that Cranston counts Correa as a resident for Census purposes? Doesn’t that settle the matter? Legally speaking, it may not. Within constitutional limits, states and municipalities are free to be inconsistent in how they define “residency” from one purpose to the next. (For instance, as soon as you move to a state, you might be considered a “resident” for receiving state welfare benefits, but not yet a “resident” for in-state tuition eligibility. That’s because the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution bars waiting periods for welfare but not for in-state tuition.)

To be sure, there’s an element of political theater to Jolina’s appeal. Direct Action for Rights and Equality, a Providence-based organization that advocates for low-income communities of color, is supporting Jolina’s quest to stay in school with her friends and classmates; and DARE is also among the organizations advocating for the passage of pending legislation that would count Rhode Island prisoners as residents of the communities they came from, rather than the communities where they’re incarcerated.

The point, then, is less to establish a precedent that prisoners’ children can go to school near the prison, and more to force prison-based gerrymandering to its logical extreme. Although Jolina may genuinely want to stay in her current school, it would surely be unreasonable to expect the Cranston school system to accommodate the children of all its 3,000 prisoners. But precisely for that reason, Cranston shouldn’t be exploiting its prison population come Census time to suck political power away from the communities where all those children actually live.

Regardless of the legal technicalities, there’s something unseemly–and, I’d argue, fundamentally antidemocratic–about the eagerness of local politicians to claim prisoners as residents to bolster their district’s population numbers for funding and redistricting purposes, when they don’t actually treat prisoners as constituents for any other purpose. Mayor Fung is happy to exploit Joey Correa’s (involuntary) residence within the Cranston city limits as a way of gaining additional funding for city services, presumably including its public schools. Yet, he doesn’t think Correa himself should be allowed to take advantage of the fact that Cranston counts him as a resident, and enroll his daughter in one of those schools.

Sara Mayeux is a JD/Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, where she studies the history of the American criminal justice system. She blogs about prison and jail issues at http://prisonlaw.wordpress.com.

2 responses:

  1. […] a comment » For more details on the Rhode Island case I blogged about the other day, visit my guest post over at the Prisoners of the Census […]

  2. Ed Unneland says:

    Add this to the parade of horribles …

    NYS prisoners are typically incarcerated in Northern New York. It makes sense to site prisons there as upstate land prices are quite inexpensive and corrections officers can have a relatively decent standard of living on salaries that would be considered risible downstate.

    If children of prisoners are deemed, for educational districting, to be residents of the upstate communities, then watch New York City charge out-of-district tuition for them to go to school (or to charge the upstate school districts for the costs of educating their residents’ children).

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