If a Hartford resident is in a Somers prison, should he be counted for census purposes as a resident of Somers or of Hartford?
For ages, the U.S. Census Bureau's answer — and Connecticut's — has been Somers. But in 2010 the Census Bureau allowed states to chose where to count inmates for redistricting purposes, and a handful have opted to count inmates in their home communities. A bill to make this change in Connecticut failed in 2011 and has been proposed again this year.
It didn't get out of committee, so almost assuredly will fail again. But it has the support of groups such as Prison Policy Initiative, Common Cause and the NAACP, and is likely to be back before the 2020 census.
From the perspective of fairness and democracy, prisoners should be counted in their towns of residence. To see why, look at the Connecticut General Assembly in the early 1960s. State representatives were allocated by town — one for towns under 5,000 in population and two for towns with more than 5,000. So as my late and great friend Judge Robert Satter observed, the rural towns of Union and Hartland, with 1,440 residents between them, had the same number of representatives as did Hartford, which then had more than 162,000 souls. Thus, small rural towns could dominate large cities.
Such undemocratic malapportionment here and across the country led to the series of court cases espousing the "one man, one vote" rulings ordering that voting districts be apportioned on the basis of population — districts with roughly the same number of people.
But in Connecticut, most inmates cannot vote, and those who can — those who've not yet been sentenced or are in stir for a misdemeanor — must vote by absentee ballot in their towns of residence. So, we again have a form of malapportionment, what Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative calls "prison gerrymandering."
Let's take the state's 7th Senatorial District, ably represented by Sen. John Kissell, which includes the northern-tier prison towns of Enfield, Somers and Suffield. The district of about 100,000 people includes about 8,000 inmates. So, 92,000 non-inmates in the 7th District have the voting power of 100,000 persons in a non-prison district, in apparent violation of the "one man, one vote" mandate.
Kissell agreed with me when I posed this to him. He nonetheless opposed the bill in 2011 following the wishes of his town officials, who believed they would lose money under some funding formulas if the inmates were counted elsewhere. There's the rub.
About half of the state's incarcerated people come from the five major cities, but almost two-thirds of the state's prison cells are located in five smaller towns: Cheshire, East Lyme, Enfield, Somers and Suffield, according to Wagner's research. The average sentence served, according to the Department of Correction, is 12 months. Most inmates go back to their homes in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, etc. In all likelihood, these communities nurtured the inmates' families, and will help them with job training and other services.
So they have expenses, but so do the prison towns, for wastewater treatment, among other things. Cheshire's well-regarded town manager Michael Milone told me his town has to expand its treatment plant at a cost of $32 million, and said the state, which uses 25 percent of the plant's capacity, has not agreed to help with the cost. So the town has sued the state.
Milone said Cheshire is supposed to get about $4 million in PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) reimbursement from the state, but this year got about half that (as did other towns). Where does he make some of it up? The Education Cost Sharing formula. He said the presence of 2,400 inmates lowers the town's wealth, which increases its ECS school funding grant, even though very few if any inmates have children in local schools. That's sound public policy?
The solution: Study the actual cost and economic impact of prisons, compensate the towns accordingly, and count the inmates in their towns of residence. It would slightly enhance the political strength of the cities and cause slightly larger districts to be drawn in the suburbs with prisons, changes that would not hugely affect the balance of power in the legislature.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.