A U.S. District Judge ruled today that the City of Cranston violated the one person, one vote principle of the U.S. constitution when it counted people incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions as "residents" of one Ward of the City.

May 24, 2016

City of Cranston, Rhode Island ordered to redraw district lines within 30 days

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Steven Brown (ACLU of RI): 401 831-7171

Providence, RI. — In a precedent-setting ruling, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux issued a decision today holding that the City of Cranston violated the one person, one vote requirements of the U.S. Constitution when it allocated the entire incarcerated population of the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) as “residents” of one ward of the City when it drew district lines for the City Council and School Committee following the 2010 Census. The ruling allows the City 30 days to present the Court with a new redistricting plan meeting constitutional requirements.

Today’s ruling, just the second of its kind in the nation, concluded that the City artificially inflated the population count of Ward 6, where the ACI is located, by treating all incarcerated persons as “residents” of the prison for redistricting purposes. Doing so, said the court, violates the rights of persons residing in other wards to equal representation as required by the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

“I’m thrilled that our fight for equal representation has been successful,” said Karen Davidson, lead plaintiff. “Fairness in redistricting is a fundamental right and I’m glad that the court has vindicated our claims.”

At issue in the case was the City of Cranston’s choice to count the more than three thousand inmates at the ACI in a single city ward for the purposes of drawing City Council and School Committee districts. Plaintiffs argued this “prison gerrymandering” was improper because those incarcerated at the ACI are not true constituents of local elected officials, but instead remain residents of their pre-incarceration communities for virtually all legal purposes, including voting.

Judge Lagueux agreed with the plaintiffs’ claims, stating that “the ACI’s inmates lack a ‘representational nexus’ with the Cranston City Council and School Committee.” He noted that “Cranston’s elected officials do not campaign or endeavor to represent their ACI constituents,” and pointed out that that the majority of incarcerated persons cannot vote, and those who can are required by law to vote by absentee ballot from their pre-incarceration address.

Due to the questionable counting, persons at the only state-run correctional facility in Rhode Island account for 25% of Ward 6’s total “population.” According to Census Bureau data, without the incarcerated population, Ward 6 has only 10,209 true constituents. Yet those constituents now wield the same political power as the roughly 13,500 constituents in each of the other wards.

Cranston residents Karen Davidson, Debbie Flitman, Eugene Perry, and Sylvia Weber joined the ACLU of Rhode Island as plaintiffs in the case. They were represented in federal court by Demos, the Prison Policy Initiative, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Rhode Island.

“This is a big win for democracy,” said Adam Lioz of Demos, counsel for the plaintiffs. “Prison gerrymandering distorts representation and should no longer be tolerated. This decision should pave the way for other courts to address this long-standing problem.”

“We applaud the court’s decision requiring the City to correct its prison gerrymandering problem without delay,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “It is time for Cranston to stop holding elections under a one-person, three-quarters of a vote regime.”

“Counting people at the ACI as constituents of Ward 6 officials made no sense,” said Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative. “They can’t use the park or library, attend a City Council meeting, or send their kids to public schools. And, even those who can vote must do so from their actual legal residence, not the prison location.”

“This ruling means that Cranston can no longer play games with our democracy by artificially inflating the political power of one district over another. People who are incarcerated should be counted as residents of the districts where they lived, not as so-called ‘residents’ of where they are involuntarily confined,” said Sean Young, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger added: “The ACLU first urged the City to redraw its district lines four years ago in order to protect the rights of voters in the City’s five other wards. I am gratified that they should soon have their voices heard in equal measure with those in Ward 6.”

The case is Davidson et. al. v. City of Cranston. Plaintiffs’ complaint can be found here and their motion for summary judgment is here. Judge Lagueux’s ruling is here.

Tennessee ends mandatory prison gerrymandering in county governments; should next take up bills on state legislative districts.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 2, 2016

Hot on the heels of a federal court decision holding prison gerrymandering unconstitutional in a Florida County, Tennessee has passed a law last week clarifying that its counties may also opt out of the practice.

The new law provides:

When a reapportionment is made, residents of a correctional institution who cannot by law register in the county as voters may be excluded from any consideration of representation.

Most states are silent on the question of how local governments handle prison populations at redistricting time, and over 200 local governments that have significant prison populations choose to avoid prison gerrymandering. (And the larger the prison population, the more likely the county is to correct the problem.) But Tennessee was one of only 3 states that required its local governments to use Census data that counted incarcerated people as if they were residents of the town the prison was located in. (The two remaining states are Minnesota and Wisconsin.)

This is an important first step for ending prison gerrymandering in Tennessee, which features some of the most dramatic and growing prison gerrymandering in the country. The problem really took off in 1992, when the state’s Attorney General interpreted the state constitution to require counties to use federal Census data for redistricting, which counted people incarcerated in the county as if they were county residents. And as the state’s prison population more than doubled over the next two decades, and counties continued to dutifully abide by the ever-more-questionable decision, some county residents had their vote diluted by as much as 88%.

Still, the legislature was silent on ending prison gerrymandering until recently, when Representative Weaver, the bill’s sponsor tried to solve the problem for Trousdale County, declaring that “we need this desperately”: a large new prison was slated to open in Trousdale County, where the projected prison population would have accounted for 3 whole districts on its own.

Tennessee’s counties are now unequivocally free to protect their democracy from the Census Bureau’s prison miscount. Now what about the state’s General Assembly districts? Time is running out for the bills to end prison gerrymandering in the state legislative districts in this session, but I hope to see Tennessee soon finish what it started.

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