RI lawmakers debate whether to stop ‘prison gerrymandering’

Politics

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Should prisoners at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) be counted as residents of Cranston or their previous hometown?

That question was front-and-center during a Rhode Island reapportionment commission hearing Monday evening.

Currently, prisoners at the ACI are counted as residents of Cranston, even though imprisoned felons are not eligible to vote, and those that are serving time for misdemeanors don’t necessarily cast their absentee ballots there.

Critics of the practice describe it as “prison gerrymandering,” and argue that prisoners should be counted as residents of the communities in which they previously resided.

“Prison gerrymandering removes representation from communities that are already unrepresented by shifting people’s representation to prisons away from their communities that they live in and and extra representation to communities where prisons are located, such as the ACI,” Harrison Tuttle of the Black Lives Matter Political Action Committee said.

But others, including Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins, claim that’s not the case.

“Including non-voters, like prisoners, for purposes of apportionment does not unconstitutionally dilute the voting strength of eligible votes like as some would believe,” Hopkins testified.

Kimball Brace of Election Data Services presented the commission with data on the issue during Monday night’s hearing.

That data revealed that, of the close to 2,000 prisoners at the ACI who had prior addresses listed, most would be counted in Providence, followed by Pawtucket, Woonsocket and then Cranston.

“The ACI, from a Census terminology, is known as a group quarter,” Brace explained. “Not only is correction facilities a group quarter, but college dorms are a group quarter, military bases are group quarter, all of those kinds of things.”

Now armed with 2020 Census data, lawmakers are weighing whether to join 12 other states in changing how prisoners are accounted for. Members of the commission expressed mixed opinions Monday night.

“If I represent 28,000 people and 4,000 of those are incarcerated – they don’t vote, you work less, you have less mail to send, less people to knock on the door, less people to talk to,” Sen. Ana Quezada said.

“Does this committee have the authority to do what we’re being asked to do?” Sen. Gordon Rogers questioned. “That’s the first question. I don’t think we do.”

The reapportionment commission’s final maps are due to the R.I. General Assembly by mid-January.

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