PROVIDENCE — The state redistricting commission on Thursday unveiled draft versions of new House and Senate district maps, providing the public with an initial glimpse of what Rhode Island’s new political boundaries might look like.
The Special Commission on Reapportionment did not make any final decision about whether to stop counting inmates at the prisons in Cranston rather than at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. But the state’s redistricting consultant, Kimball W. Brace, suggested the state has data that might provide a way to count some – but not all – of the inmates at their home addresses.
“Advocates would be able to have a win, for lack of a better term, to be able to talk about reallocating maybe some of the prisoners,” Brace said. Rhode Island is looking at data that others states have not analyzed, he said, “so I see us as kind of potentially leading the way for another way of looking at this prisoner issue.”
Advocates are calling for an end to “prison gerrymandering,” saying the current system provides outsized representation for the few districts with prisons while diminishing representation for urban districts with large numbers of people of color. But Cranston officials defend the current system, arguing that the city provides public services, such as fire and police department services, to inmates at the ACI.
Earlier this week, Brace showed the commission a breakdown of how long inmates are expected to remain at the ACI.
That data showed that 10 percent of inmates are serving life sentences so they should be counted at the ACI. “You’ve got a whole bunch of lifers here,” Brace said, so it would not necessarily make sense to count them at addresses to which they won’t return.
But the data also showed that 24 percent of inmates are serving less than 1 year, and another 24 percent haven’t been sentenced yet. “Is it possible to do some things for some individuals?” Brace said. “It’s certainly something you as a commission may want to think about and talk about next week.”
The commission plans to meet again on Monday night at Smithfield High School.
Brace presented the commission with two versions of a new House map and two versions of a new Senate map. The House contains 75 districts, and the Senate has 38 districts.
“The thing to keep in mind is the plans today are not – I repeat, underscore, exclamation point, capital letters – they are not final,” Brace said. “They are designed to get feedback. We want people to comment and think about and give us reactions back.”
The commission plans to spend the next three weeks gathering input about the Plan A and Plan B maps, and it could end with Plans C, D, or E, he said.
Brace noted that the commission must follow the principle of one person/one vote by keeping all the districts about the same size – roughly 14,000 people per House district and 28,000 per Senate district, with 5 percent latitude above or below those targets.
Rhode Island’s districts are very small compared to states such as California, for example, Brace said. “The only smaller districts in this country, I think, are in New Hampshire,” he said.
Brace said the Plan A maps were drawn beginning in the northern part of the state, and the Plan B maps began in the southern part of the state. He noted many legislative districts in the northern part of the state needed to shrink because the latest census data showed increases in population in many northern towns and cities, while many southern districts needed to grow.
And he noted that as you begin drawing a map, each decision has a ripple effect, with the potential for unintended consequences.
“Any time you have lines and you have district boundaries, any place you put them will have a political impact,” Brace said. “There is no way around it. Whether you are going down Elm Street or Main Street, it’s going to impact somebody someplace.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, urged Brace to put the “shape files” on the redistricting commission website to facilitate analysis of the proposed maps. “Without that data, it will be hard for people to really delve deeply into looking at and properly evaluating the plan,” he said.
Besides House and Senate maps, the commission must also redraw the boundaries for the state’s two congressional districts. But Brace has said that will be much easier and done at a later point.