You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Connecticut Senate OKs bill that gives cities more legislative clout by changing how inmates are counted for redistricting

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 5/5/2021 Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant

The state Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to end the long-standing practice of so-called prison gerrymandering that currently allows prison towns like Enfield and Somers to have higher populations by including inmates and therefore greater representation in the General Assembly.

For years, the prisoners have been counted for population purposes where they were incarcerated at the moment — rather than in their last known residential address, such as in Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury or New Britain. About half of all inmates in Connecticut previously lived in those five cities, lawmakers said.

After more than two hours of debate, the Senate voted 35-1 to approve the bill with one Republican against the measure.

The issue is timely because new U.S. Census counts were recently released, and officials will be redrawing state legislative districts that will then be locked in place for 10 years until the next census. The state legislative seats are based on population. Connecticut currently has fewer than 9,000 inmates, compared to a record high of more than 20,000 in 2008.

Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat, has been working on the issue since he first came to the state Senate in 2009 — noting that the matter was not resolved by the time of the last reapportionment of legislative districts.

“These aren’t bodies. They are human beings,’' said Winfield, adding that he often receives letters from prison inmates. “There’s a soul there. There’s a mind there. ... We are talking about human beings who do not choose to live in these places. ... The reality is you don’t want them when they’re out of the system. You want their bodies when they are in.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said he viewed the bill in a broader context of improving society that started last year with national and state marches following the videotaped death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while handcuffed in police custody.

“We spoke about equity legislation — righting wrongs,” Duff said on the Senate floor. “None of that happens with one wave of a wand. This is a process we need to have over a series of pieces of policy. ... This policy is a step in the right direction. While I see other states moving in the opposite direction ... I believe we are working hard here in this body and this building to fulfill the promises that were made in changing policies and righting wrongs.’'

But Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican, said he opposed the bill because he has five prisons in his district in north-central Connecticut with 3,642 inmates overall, including 1,565 in Suffield and 66 at the supermax Northern Correctional Institution in the small town of Somers that is scheduled to close later this year.

“If you spend most of your time eating and sleeping [in a particular place] ... that’s considered your residence,” Kissel said on the Senate floor. “These inmates reside in these facilities. ... It’s under the guise of this detrimental name of gerrymandering.”

The federal government and 40 states follow the same system that Connecticut currently has — counting inmates based on the location of the prison they are incarcerated in, Kissel said.

The measure still requires approval by the state House of Representatives and Gov. Ned Lamont.

Sen. Mae Flexer, a Danielson Democrat who chairs the legislative committee overseeing the matter, said lawmakers needed to act this year or lose their immediate chance to change the system. She added there would be no adjustments to state and federal funding.

“This is a once-in-a-decade chance to change our current practice,” Flexer said. “It’s simply wrong, and it’s racially unjust. ... We’ve waited too long to move forward with this initiative.”

Sen. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican who favors the change, said the measure is a matter of social equity, fairness and second chances for individuals.

“I hope this will be the first of many steps to help those who have paid their debt to society,” Hwang said. “This is an important first step.”

Sen. Rob Sampson, a Wolcott Republican, said he has “mixed feelings” over the legislation, saying he has numerous questions about the inmates in the system.

“What do we do about people who are homeless?” Sampson asked Wednesday on the Senate floor. “Where should we count that person? What about people from out of state? What about someone who is serving a life sentence?”

The use of the word gerrymandering is “unbelievably offensive” and wrong, Sampson said, noting that the word was taken out of the bill’s title. Raising the issues of racism and bigotry “has probably delayed this becoming law” through the years, he said.

Sampson said he agreed with a bipartisan amendment, which was approved Wednesday on a voice vote, that convicted criminals who do not have the possibility of release would be counted where they are serving in prison. About 4% of prisoners serve life sentences, while 96% are eventually released in Connecticut, lawmakers said.

The state NAACP and others filed a federal lawsuit in 2018 over the issue, saying that the practice “inflates the voices of rural, white residents and dilutes votes in communities of color.” Proponents said the current practice is a violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that calls for “one person, one vote.”

Nationally, prisons are often constructed in remote, rural areas — far from cities. In the battle over the lawsuit, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the case could proceed. But the two sides, however, later agreed last year that the case would be dismissed.

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Hartford Courant

Hartford Courant
Hartford Courant
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon