PROVIDENCE — In a compromise proposal, Rhode Island’s redistricting commission on Wednesday recommended counting state inmates at their home addresses rather than at the Adult Correctional Institutions if they’re expected to be in prison for less than two years.
Those serving terms of more than two years would continue to be counted at the Cranston prison complex for redistricting purposes, as the state has done for decades.
The recommendation, subject to General Assembly approval, is the latest development in a decades-long drive to address what critics call “prison gerrymandering.”
Critics say the current system “distorts democracy” by providing outsized representation to elected leaders in districts with prison cells while diminishing the representation of other districts, particularly urban districts with many people of color. But Cranston officials defended the current system, saying the city pays for fire, police, and other public services at the prisons.
Former Senator Harold M. Metts, a Black Providence Democrat on the redistricting commission, made the motion Wednesday night, saying he agrees with advocates that all the inmates at the ACI should be counted at their home addresses for redistricting purposes.
“However, after serving 30 years in this arena and obtaining some institutional knowledge and seeing past efforts on this issue snuffed out, any progress made is better than none at all,” Metts said. “And this is progress.”
Metts noted that two decades ago he filed a lawsuit challenging a Senate district map that undermined Black representation, and the litigation led to the creation of the Senate district that he represented for 16 years. As a senator he repeatedly introduced bills aimed at addressing “prison gerrymandering,” and those proposals “fell on deaf ears” – until this year.
“Finally, this issue got the attention it deserves,” Metts said. “We were reminded that it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
He urged advocates to continue to build on the progress, saying, “Let the advocacy continue through the legislative process, remembering that justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
The compromise would apply to House, Senate, and congressional district maps, but cities and towns would be able to make their own decisions in drawing local district boundaries.
The commission ended up voting 15 to 1 for the motion, with Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, casting the lone “no” vote.
Prior to the vote, de la Cruz noted that the state Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to advise the public of the agenda, and she noted that the redistricting commission agenda called for a “discussion on inclusion of ACI data” – not a vote.
After consulting with legal counsel, Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat who co-chairs the commission, said it was appropriate to go ahead with the vote.
Former Representative Stephen R. Ucci, a Johnston Democrat on the commission, said, “In the beginning, I was skeptical to understand the ACI issue. Ten years ago, we said ‘That’s interesting’ and we kicked it off.”
But after listening to what’s been presented to the commission, Ucci said, “It really sounds like a good compromise to make sure folks are not disenfranchised who really are not there (at the ACI) for a long time, and it seems to have de minimis impact on the other districts, including the city of Cranston.”
In November, redistricting consultants told the commission that of the 2,618 inmates at the ACI, 24 percent were not yet sentenced, 24 percent were expected to be released in less than 1 year, 15 percent were expected to be released in 1 to 2 years.
Ryan Taylor, project manager for Election Data Services, on Wednesday told the commission that he gathered data about the inmates who were at the ACI on April 1, 2020. Addresses were not available for some inmates, he said, explaining that some were homeless and others were from out of state.
The consultants then “geocoded” the Rhode Island addresses for inmates who were expected to remain at the ACI for less than two years or were not yet sentenced, Taylor said. Those inmates represented 56 percent of the inmates that had known Rhode Island addresses, he said.
Most of those inmates would be reassigned to districts in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket, Taylor said. That change would have the biggest impact on districts that include the ACI, including House District 20 (now represented by David A. Bennett, a Warwick Democrat), but it would not have a significant impact on other districts, he said.
After the vote, Common Cause Rhode Island and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island issued a joint statement, saying Wednesday’s action represents partial recognition of a state law that says people don’t lose their home residence for voting purposes when incarcerated.
“This is a small step toward eliminating the practice known as prison-based gerrymandering,” the groups said. They said 12 other states reassign those who were counted at correctional institutions, but only Pennsylvania differentiates by the length of sentence “by reassigning everyone serving a term of less than 10 years.”
Common Cause said it’s grateful the commission took “this incremental step” but the “bipartisan vote is clear evidence that we have more work to do to provide fair representation to all communities in our state.”
The ACLU said it appreciates the commission “has at least recognized that the issue of prison gerrymandering is real and needs to be addressed,” but this step “is far from what other states have done, and still keeps districts unnecessarily malapportioned.”
The Black Lives Matter RI PAC also issued a statement, saying, “This evening, the R.I. Redistricting Commission took a step in the right direction on prison gerrymandering. Now, it’s up to the General Assembly to approve this recommendation and pass a law to partly end prison gerrymandering to those who have been at the ACI for under two years. The work to end prison gerrymandering is not over.”
The redistricting commission must still vote on the proposed House, Senate, and congressional district maps. The next meeting will take place on Jan. 12 at the State House.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.