The State Senate approved a bill on Wednesday 35 to 1 that will change the way that incarcerated individuals are counted when determining state legislative districts.
Using the current formula, Connecticut counts prisoners in the district where they are incarcerated. The bill will change this practice so that prisoners are instead counted in their last place of residence before being incarcerated.
This bill is particularly timely as the state prepares to redraw its legislative districts this year. The next time the districts will be redrawn is in 2031.
Individuals who are serving a life sentence in the prisons will be counted in the prison district, in accordance with a bipartisan amendment to the bill.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said on the floor of the House that he receives phone calls and letters from people who are incarcerated but who previously resided in his district. He said that the representatives in the districts where the prisons are located rarely represent the individuals who reside in the prisons.
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said that he believed every legislator who represented a large city had received similar letters.
“When I think about those individuals who write … I think naturally they would go toward writing their legislator from where they’re from,” said Duff.
However, State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the lone vote against the bill, disagreed with Winfield. He said his district includes five prisons and a total of 3,642 inmates. He said the inmates in his district had contacted him “on any number of occasions.”
“I would posit that this bill puts forward somewhat of a fantasy,” he said. “These inmates reside in these facilities, Their physical bodies reside there. This is where they eat and sleep. This is where they’ve been sentenced.”
Connections to the community
State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said that prisoners incarcerated are placed involuntarily in the places where the prisons are located, and that they have no links with the outside community.
“They have no real connection to that community. No one in the prison serves on the school board, on the library board, the board of zoning appeals or anything else in connection with the town government,” said Looney.
Looney said that this has a disproportionate impact on cities like Stanford, Norwalk, Danbury, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, New Britain, where the majority of prisoners come from. He also pointed out that most individuals are incarcerated for less than three years, and that once they leave, they will return to their home community.
Kissel on the other hand said that having prisons located in his district has caused all sorts of concerns, from problems with sewage systems to use of roadways for transporting food and corrections officers to the taxes that the towns don’t receive for the prison property.
But State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said that this will not change any of the calculations for state grant money that the districts receive for education, the health districts or regional call centers.
Other Republicans supported the bill.
“I was struck by Senator Winfield’s comments that home means something to everyone,” said State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme.
State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, praised the amendment as “a very well-constructed policy compromise.”
“We’re talking about equity”
During the debate on the Senate floor, State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, proposed an amendment that would require at least 25 percent of the licenses for marijuana to be issued to minority business enterprises.
State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, objected that the amendment was not germane to the bill. Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz, the chair of the senate, agreed.
But State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said that because the bill requires the Office of Policy Management to collect data on prisoners’ race, the amendment should be considered valid.
“We’re talking about equity,” said Kelly. “If this isn’t germane, I don’t know what is.”
The amendment failed to pass 24-12.
Kelly said that the lieutenant governor had not asked any of the Republicans for their opinion before deciding whether the issue was germane.
“This is a trend we see time and time again … looking at us only through the partisan prism that we are Republican,” he said. “Not looking as if we represent 100,000 people in the state of Connecticut that have a voice at this table. We should be heard.”