NEWS

Amendment to exclude prisoners from count falls short

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 3/24/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE An effort to end the current practice of counting inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions in the drawing of Cranston's ward maps fell short during Monday's City Council meeting, but new proposals aimed at achieving the goal are

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NEWS

Amendment to exclude prisoners from count falls short

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An effort to end the current practice of counting inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions in the drawing of Cranston’s ward maps fell short during Monday’s City Council meeting, but new proposals aimed at achieving the goal are on the way.

The council on Monday approved, on a 5-4 party-line vote, a resolution to create a Redistricting Commission comprised of the three members of the city’s Board of Canvassers.

As part of a process completed every 10 years, that panel will be charged with presenting new ward maps – based on the 2020 Census results – to the City Council for approval. Those maps would take effect for the 2022 election cycle.

The vote would have been largely procedural, and likely unanimous, but for the renewed debate over the counting of the prison population in the redistricting process – a practice referred to by critics as prison gerrymandering.

In short, opponents of the practice say, counting the inmates at the ACI as residents of Ward 6 dilutes the votes of those in other wards, artificially inflating the political clout of Ward 6 and violating the principle of “one person, one vote.”

The prison population is often estimated at around 3,000 and currently sits at roughly 2,300, according to the most recent Department of Corrections data.

The issue was the subject of a 2014 lawsuit, Davidson v. City of Crnaston, brought by the ACLU of Rhode Island on behalf of several city residents. The plaintiffs challenged the city’s 2012 redistricting plan, which counted inmates in the drawing of ward boundaries.

The ACLU initially prevailed in U.S. District Court, and the city was at one point ordered to draw new ward maps. On appeal, however, the city was victorious and the current practice was upheld.

On Monday, Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan proposed an amendment to the resolution creating the Redistricting Commission that would have required its proposed wards be based on a population count that removes the ACI inmates from the equation.

Ultimately, the amendment fell short by the same 5-4 margin, which fell along party lines. A decisive factor appeared to be advice from legal counsel and the city’s elections director that Donegan’s amendment would put the redistricting panel’s charge at odds with what is prescribed in the city’s charter, which requires the population counts used to draw maps be based on the city’s total number of “inhabitants.”

But based on the night’s discussion, Donegan said he would introduce two new proposals – a resolution calling for state legislation to address the issue, as well as a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would likely go before voters in 2022.

Donegan and other supporters of the amendment framed it as a matter of fairness and a means of protecting democratic ideals.

The current practice, Donegan said, “distorts and undermines” the principle of “one person, one vote.” He rejected suggestions that the change might endanger federal funding streams, and he also said while “prison gerrymandering” may differ from typical conceptions of gerrymandering as benefiting a particular candidate or party, “it is a form of racial gerrymandering” that “dilutes the political and voting power of communities of color.”

“Ideally, this would be taken up at the federal level. And if not at the federal level, at the state level. It hasn’t, and we’re left to do it here this evening,” Donegan said.

A litany of speakers voiced support for the amendment during Monday’s public comment period. A number of organizations, including the ACLU of Rhode Island, had representatives participating in the Zoom meeting or submitted written testimony in advance.

Ginger Jackson-Gleich from the Prison Police Initiative said there is a “rapidly growing consensus” across the nation in favor of ending prison gerrymandering. Ten states and more than 200 counties or municipalities, she said, have already taken action.

Lynette Labinger, a cooperating attorney with ACLU of RI, told council members that the opinion of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston in the Davidson case included a “very clear ruling” from the judges that “this is a political decision, that you have the right to make this decision without fear of being sued by either side.”

Jim Vincent, a Cranston resident who serves as president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, said his organization was supportive of Donegan’s amendment.

“To me, this is a matter of fairness,” he said. “This is a matter of democracy.”

Pauline DeRosa of the Garden City Alliance said the counting of inmates in the Ward 6 population is “totally unfair to wards 1 through 5.”

“What it comes down to is fairness and the idea of one person, one vote … No ward should be having disproportionate representation on the council,” said Michael Beauregard, one of the founders of the new Cranston Forward political action committee.

Brown University professor Naoko Shibusawa and Cranston resident Enrique Sanchez, a member of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, also testified in support of Donegan’s amendment.

“The ACI and the population there cannot be part of a voting system when their voices are not being heard,” Sanchez said.

Others offered a different perspective. Steve Frias, who chaired the city’s Charter Review Commission last year, said that panel considered a prison gerrymandering amendment to put before voters, but it failed on an 8-3 vote. The commission did proposal an ultimately successful amendment with language more broadly addressing the issue of gerrymandering and requiring that ward maps be drawn in a way that keeps neighborhoods together as much as possible.

Frias called Donegan’s amendment “problematic,” citing the specific charter language that refers to the city’s “number of inhabitants” being used in the redistricting process.

“If you want to exclude the ACI inmates, you have to change the charter,” he said.

Frias said while ACI inmates are not typical constituents, the city nonetheless provides services to the facility – as it does to the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital, whose residents are eligible to vote in Cranston. He also suggested removing inmates from the count could “open up a can of worms,” perhaps paving the way for college students, military personnel and other transient residents to be excluded from population tallies.

Frias also said Ward 6 has been represented by Democrats and Republicans since its creation in the 1960s, and that it has consistently high levels of participation in elections.

“It’s not gerrymandered to support any particular candidate or help any particular party … It’s not some sort of rotten borough scheme,” he said.

Nick Lima, the city’s elections director and registrar, said while he found testimony from supporters of Donegan’s amendment “quite compelling,” he too harbored concerns over the proposal due to the charter’s current language.

“In this case, the charter is, at least in my judgment, very clear,” he said.

Lima said state lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would accomplish the goal of Donegan’s amendment. In short, he said, the bills would establish a centralized process for assigning ACI inmates to their home communities for population counting purposes. He suggested the council pursue a resolution in support of that legislation, and he also raised the prospect of a charter amendment going before the city’s voters.

Stephen Angell, the council’s legal adviser, also agreed that the charter language creates an “obstacle” and that the “political solution rests at the state level.” He and Assistant City Solicitor John Verdecchia also said Donegan’s proposed amendment could open the city up to a new legal challenge.

Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly, who served on the Charter Review Commission, said: “The city charter is our controlling document … If we want to change it, there are absolutely avenues to do so, and there was some compelling testimony. But I think this is the wrong avenue to do so.”

Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino pushed back on the assertion that adopting Donegan’s amendment could jeopardize federal funding to the city, calling it a “myth.” While acknowledging the charter language regarding “inhabitants” gave her “pause,” she also cited the language of the First Circuit Court of Appeals decision to assert that adopting the amendment would be within the council’s authority.

“It’s not that it can’t be done … It is constitutional to in fact change it,” she said.

Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain urged her colleagues to support the amendment.

“When we want to do things that are right, we require courage … Let’s be brave,” she said.

Just prior to the vote, Council President Chris Paplauskas said: “I can’t vote for this tonight for the reason of the charter … But I certainly look forward to the work my colleagues are going to continue to do on this.”

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