Senate OKs bill changing how inmates are counted for census, redistricting purposes
STATE HOUSE – The Senate today approved legislation to correct what has come to be known as “prison-based gerrymandering,” counting inmates, for census purposes, at their prison addresses rather than their home addresses.
Sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence), the legislation, 2014-S 2286A, will require that persons in government custody use their actual residence for census and redistricting purposes. That information, under the bill, would be determined by the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Secretary of State, and forwarded to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The practice of counting inmates as residents of their prison may not have mattered a great deal many years ago, said Senator Metts, but with about a million and half people in prison today around the nation, prison-based gerrymandering can shift political power significantly. Even in a small state like Rhode Island, he said, counting inmates at the ACI as Cranston residents not only affects the makeup of districts in that community but also, because prison populations are disproportionately Black and Latino, not counting them at their home addresses can dilute minority voting strength statewide.
The census method of counting inmates at their prison address is actually contrary to Rhode Island laws, said Senator Metts. According to the law, “a person’s residence for voting purposes is his or her fixed and established domicile. … A person can have only one domicile, and the domicile shall not be considered lost solely by reason of absence” for a number of reasons, including confinement in a correctional facility.
“Despite these provisions, the census continues to classify incarcerated persons as residents of their place of incarceration rather than of their home address,” said Senator Metts. “It is obviously too late to do anything about this in regard to the 2010 census, but enactment of this legislation will ensure that this counting method is corrected before the 2020 census.”
Under the legislation, the Department of Corrections, in the year in which the census is taken, will be required to provide the Secretary of State information that includes the last known address of all incarcerated persons prior to their incarceration. The Secretary of State is also directed to request of each agency that operates a federal incarceration facility in the state the same kind of information. The Secretary of State is expected, under the legislation, to prepare redistricting population data to reflect incarcerated persons at their residential address.
Several states, said Senator Metts, have enacted or are considering new laws that would require prison inmates to be taken out of the count for redistricting or counted at their homes. Maryland and New York laws that ended prison-based gerrymandering in those states for the most recent round of redistricting were challenged in court actions and both laws were upheld.
“Enacting this legislation is ensuring the concept of one person, one vote,” said Senator Metts, “and eliminating any redistricting and political inequalities that result from the current counting practice.”
The Metts bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket), Sen. Juan M. Pichardo (D-Dist. 2, Providence) and Sen. Paul V. Jabour (D-Dist. 5, Providence). It now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. A companion House bill, 2014-H 7263, by Rep. Anastasia P. Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence) is before the House Committee on Judiciary.
For more information, contact:
Randall T. Szyba, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903