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Commission votes to reduce prison gerrymandering

Reapportionment commission recommends new voting districts which reduce practice of prison gerrymandering

<p>Over 1,000 inmates at the ACI would be counted in their home districts with the committee’s recommendation.</p>

Over 1,000 inmates at the ACI would be counted in their home districts with the committee’s recommendation.

On Jan. 5 the Rhode Island Reapportionment Commission voted 15-1 in favor of recommending that people whose prison sentences end by April 1 should count toward the representation of their hometown voting districts. 

This is a proposed change to the current practice of counting incarcerated individuals as part of the district in which they are incarcerated rather than their hometown districts. This is known by some as “prison gerrymandering” and leads to artificially inflated voter counts in Cranston districts that house the Adult Correctional Institutions, a large prison complex in the state, The Herald previously reported. Approximately 38% and 11% of the ACI population come from Providence and Pawtucket, respectively.

Malapportionment occurs when there is a disproportionate ratio of voters to representatives in a given district. For example, because each district has roughly the same number of people,  if one district has fewer people who vote, each voter has more influence than voters in other districts with a higher number of total voters. Because people who are incarcerated are also much less likely to vote, counting them in the district in which the prison resides increases the voting power of each individual in that district. 

The Rhode Island General Assembly approves new voting districts once every ten years following the U.S. Census. The Reapportionment Commission’s recommendation guided the draft of voting districts, which issent to the General Assembly for review. The General Assembly has historically accepted the recommendations of the Reapportionment Commission, Steven Frias ’94, a Rhode Island Republican National Committeeman, told The Herald. 

For opponents of prison gerrymandering, the months leading up to the General Assembly’s decision present an opportunity to advocate for the end of this practice. 

“The committee’s recommendation returned 1,074 inmates at the ACI (or 41% of the total prison population) back to their communities to be counted as a resident of their home district,” Representative Katherine Kazarian, a Democrat on the Reapportionment Commission, wrote in an email to The Herald. “Prior to this year, all inmates at the ACI were counted as residents of the prison complex in Cranston.”

But “one of the greatest impediments to implementing this change was that many of the addresses that the inmates gave to the ACI were either non-existent or not viable,” Kazarian noted. “But I think this recommendation is a step in the right direction and I hope we continue to see more progress in this area.”

According to Reapportionment Commission Co-Chair Sen. Steven Archambault, a Democrat from Smithfield, the commission’s recommendation was a “fair compromise.” 

“The commission wanted some change,” Archambault said. He explained that while the commission wanted to acknowledge the demands of civil rights interest groups, “we didn’t think, as a commission, that people should be entirely counted as living in their homes if they have been (at the ACI) for a period of time where they’re not coming home anytime soon.”  

Despite Archambault’s description of the commission’s recommendation as a compromise, people and organizations on both ends of the political spectrum remain dissatisfied. 

For Harrison Tuttle, executive director of the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC, the recommendation of the Reapportionment Commission “is certainly not enough.” Rather, every incarcerated person should count as a resident of their hometown when determining voting districts, Tuttle said. 

“This brings (incarcerated people) an opportunity to vote for the people that represent where they come from … and for their families who live in that area,” Tuttle said. 

Because voting districts are drawn every 10 years, 2022 was a “once in a decade opportunity” to create change, Tuttle said. “Eliminating prison gerrymandering just like other states have done was an opportunity that if we did not address now, we would have to address in 2032.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, maintains that prison gerrymandering is already against the law. 

“We’ve argued for many years that the Rhode Island voting law itself is very clear,” Brown said. “There’s a provision in the election laws that says you don’t lose your home residence for voting purposes because you are incarcerated.” 

According to Chapter 17-1 in the Rhode Island General Laws pertaining to Elections, “confinement in a correctional facility” would not lead to a person losing their residence for voting purposes.  

Frias does not agree with the decision of the Reapportionment Commission. 

“It doesn’t make sense on multiple levels,” he said. 

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The Reapportionment Commission is assuming that the individuals who are incarcerated will actually be released April 1,  Frias added. But in some instances, prisoners may be held beyond this date if they do not exhibit good behavior, which, according to Frias, does not warrant representation in their hometown districts. 

Additionally, the Reapportionment Commission “is counting (incarcerated people) where they said their address was when they went to prison,” Frias said, arguing that many people may return to different addresses than where they lived before being incarcerated.

Frias also noted that other temporary residents, such as college students, are counted toward the population of the districts in which they reside, even though many vote in their hometowns.  

In fact, Frias believes “this whole talk of prison gerrymandering is just a way to increase Democratic representation.” The counting of eligible people who are incarcerated toward their home districts would expand representative districts in Providence at the expense of those in Cranston, where the ACI is located.

On Jan. 19, Rhode Island Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki filed an open meetings complaint against the commission. The Republican Party of Rhode Island published a press release criticizing the commission’s “flagrant disregard of the Open Meeting law.” The Open Meeting Act protects the right of the public to attend meetings of public bodies, according to Title 42, Chapter 46 Rhode Island General Laws.

“It’s important so that the public is aware of what is going on,” Cienki told The Herald. “So if the public has input as to what this public body is actually discussing, they can chime in and give their opinion.”

The complain alleges that there were 36 violations of the Open Meeting law in five different categories over the course of four months, Cienki said. She accused the commission of not giving “adequate notice” to the public of the maps they were voting on, not informing the public that they would be voting on the redistricting of incarcerated individuals and failing to provide recordings of the meetings within 35 days. 

Additionally, Cienki stated, “it appears as if a majority of the members of the commission discussed the issue of reallocating the prison inmates either directly or through a conduit which would be outside an open meeting.”

The attorney general must file a court action in order for the complaint to have any consequences, Cienki said.   A letter from the attorney general’s office dated Jan. 21 and published by WPRI requests the commission provide a response to the complaint within five business days.  

They’re not necessarily “going to change the maps because of this,” Cienki said. Instead, “the individual members of the commission who participate(d) in (violating this law) can be fined.”

“The commission took on this important responsibility that showed an absolute indifference to the Open Meetings Act. And that is absolutely inexcusable,” Cienki added. 

According to Cienki, there will be profound implications if her complaint is neglected. “If the attorney general fails to hold this commission accountable, local officials may decide to absolutely ignore the Open Meetings Act as well, and point to the attorney general: ‘Well you didn’t do anything about this commission, why should we follow open meetings?’” Co-chair of the Reapportionment Commission Sen. Archambault’s response: “Hogwash.”

“That’s nothing more than nonsense,” Archambault said. “Everything that the commission did was rooted in fundamental due process.”

Although the BLM RI PAC fell short of their goal of every incarcerated person counting in their hometown voting district, Tuttle hopes that “in 10 years we can completely eliminate prison gerrymandering altogether by continuing to elect a diverse, progressive group of elected officials in the General Assembly.”

Brown agrees that the fight to end prison gerrymandering is far from over. 

“I see this as an important first step,” Brown said. “But it is a first step. There’s no reason to set this arbitrary two-year cutoff point because it still creates malapportionment that should be addressed.”

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