POLITICS
05/24/2016 07:41 pm ET

Prison Gerrymandering Is Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules

A Rhode Island city that counts inmates, but doesn't represent them, violates the "one person, one vote" principle.
Steven Senne/AP

The population of Cranston, Rhode Island, was 80,387 as of the 2010 census. Within its borders lies the state's only state prison, the Adult Correctional Institutions, which houses 3,433 inmates.

A federal judge in Rhode Island ruled on Tuesday that counting those prisoners as city residents and allocating the inmate population to a Cranston ward is unconstitutional, and ordered the city to redraw its map so that it only counts actual city residents, not prisoners.

Cranston, which is divided into six wards of about 13,500 residents each, had been the target of a 2014 lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups that sought to invalidate its 2012 redistricting map. The groups alleged that the population of the Sixth Ward diluted city residents' voting power across the board.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux concluded this arrangement violates the Constitution's "one person, one vote" principle, and gave the city 30 days to come up with a new map that fixes the problem. He also prohibited city officials from holding new elections until he approves the new districting plan.

"For every vote that ten residents of those wards casts to elect a city councillor or school committee member, the officials in Ward Six need only get seven votes to prevail," Lagueux wrote, adding that this effect is "constitutionally untenable." He calculated that without the prison inmates, the Sixth Ward population drops to 10,209.

The judge relied in large part on the Supreme Court's recent decision in Evenwel v. Abbott, which instructed states to observe the principle of "representational equality" when redrawing voting districts that include non-voting populations such as children and college students.

Lagueux pointed out that Cranston does nothing to represent the state prisoners inside its borders -- the vast majority are not allowed to partake of the city's civic life, don't benefit from its public services and are not targeted in campaigning.

"Nonetheless, their numerical presence in the Ward is unfairly inflating the voice of the Ward’s other inhabitants," Lagueux wrote. 

The judge reasoned that -- unlike local college students who are affected by municipal decision-making -- the same wasn't the case with prisoners, who are wards of the state and thus cannot benefit from the Constitution's "one person, one vote" principle, which covers those who are otherwise meaningfully represented.

This lack of a "representational nexus" with Cranston, the court said, meant that the city's current districting plan couldn't stand.

Our goal is for the incarcerated to be counted, but in the right place -- the place that is really their true residence, because you don't lose your residence by imprisonment. Brenda Wright, vice president of policy and legal strategies at Demos

Robert Coupe, the director of administration at Cranston, said in an emailed statement to The Huffington Post that city officials strongly disagree with the ruling and will likely appeal.

"The ACLU is creating a controversy that should not exist after the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding similar districts based upon population," Coupe said, in a reference to last month's Evenwel decision. He noted that the city's 2012 plan comported with census figures, the city's charter and state law.

The ACLU didn't respond to a request for comment, but praised the ruling on its Rhode Island website.

Brenda Wright, an attorney with the public policy group Demos -- which backed the lawsuit along with the Prison Policy Initiative -- said the the litigation was aimed at getting localities to account for prisoners where it truly counts.

"Our goal is for the incarcerated to be counted, but in the right place -- the place that is really their true residence, because you don't lose your residence by imprisonment," Wright said.

Wright explained that many inmates at the Cranston facility are there temporarily because they're awaiting trial or are convicted of misdemeanors, which means they'd be eligible to vote. Yet they aren't allowed to use Cranston as their address for voting purposes.

In March, the ACLU won a favorable ruling in Florida using an argument similar to the one that prevailed in Rhode Island. The judge in Tuesday's ruling quoted extensively from that decision.

"The end game in our view is for the Census Bureau to change its rules for how incarcerated people are counted," Wright said. "That would solve the problem nationwide."

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