Rhode Island ACLU to Reapportionment Commission: say NO to prison-based gerrymandering

Hillary Davis of the RI ACLU testified before members of the RI Reapportionment Commission, urging them to avoid engaging in the most extreme prison-based gerrymandering in the country.

by Leah Sakala, October 18, 2011

Rhode Island is in danger of potentially creating a House District where a quarter of the people counted in the district wouldn’t be actually be constituents of the district’s representative.

How can this be? Because that quarter is locked up in the Cranston prison complex.

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as if they were residents of the facilities in which they are detained, but both Rhode Island law and common sense say otherwise. Incarcerated people remain legal residents of their home addresses, and, if allowed to vote, they vote absentee in their home districts. When incarcerated people are counted as “constituents” of the district that includes the prison, the political clout of that district is inflated at the expense of all other districts. In the House District scenario above, for example, every three of the actual residents who live in the district with the prison would have as much access to the House of Representatives as any four people living in any other district.

Because prison-based gerrymandering poses such a threat to the welfare of Rhode Island’s democracy, the Rhode Island ACLU is stepping in to show how the state can get redistricting right. Yesterday the ACLU presented testimony before the Rhode Island Reapportionment Commission, explaining that the Commission needs to take decisive action in order to avoid creating one of the most extreme prison-based gerrymandering situations in the country.

ACLU policy associate Hillary Davis warned the members of the Commission that Rhode Island is particularly vulnerable to the pernicious effects of prison-based gerrymandering:

The need for remedying this problem in Rhode Island is heightened by our state’s special status. We believe we may be the only state with just one prison complex. This fact combines negatively with the fact that Rhode Island legislative districts are smaller by population than in most states.

It is precisely this combination of a concentrated prison population with the relatively small size of Rhode Island districts that has the potential to put the state on the map as having the most dramatic instance of prison-based gerrymandering in any state legislative district. Furthermore, state law explicitly states that the condition of being incarcerated does not legally sever a person from his or her actual home address.

As Davis explained, there’s an easy solution that would immediately solve the problem for this redistricting cycle: just take the prison populations out of the general population data used for redistricting. Removing the prison populations for redistricting purposes would ensure that every vote cast in Rhode Island is weighted equally, and all residents have equal access to the legislature.

And in the long term? Rhode Island should follow the lead of states like Maryland, New York, Delaware, or California, and pass legislation that ends prison-based gerrymandering statewide once and for all.

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