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Thursday, May 6, 2021

ROLC Celebrates CT Senate Legislation Abolishing Prison Gerrymandering

UPDATE: On May 5, 2021, S.B. 753 passed out of the Connecticut House of Representatives. On May 26, 2021, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed the bill into law, making Connecticut the 11th state to abolish prison gerrymandering

The Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School celebrated the historic and bipartisan passage of legislation to abolish prison gerrymandering by the Connecticut State Senate on May 5, 2021. The clinic has worked for months representing the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP (NAACP CT) and the ACLU of Connecticut (ACLU CT) in efforts to end the practice through the passage of new legislation.

The Senate passed the legislation, S.B. 753, by a near unanimous vote of 35-1. The bill now awaits action by the Connecticut House of Representatives, where Speaker Matt Ritter will determine whether and when to bring S.B. 753 to a floor vote.

“This is a historic moment for Connecticut,” said Daniel Ki ’21, a law student intern with the clinic, which represents the NAACP CT and ACLU CT. “It is thrilling to see the Senate pass bipartisan legislation to abolish prison gerrymandering for the first time. This step would not have been possible without the advocacy of the NAACP, ACLU, and legislators and ally organizations that have led the fight for so long.”

The clinic has also worked with the NAACP CT, NAACP, and other plaintiffs beginning in 2018 to challenge prison gerrymandering in Connecticut in federal court.

Senate passage brings Connecticut one step closer to becoming the 11th state to end prison gerrymandering. Due to the once-per-decade timing of the state’s redistricting process, 2021 is the last year for legislators to decide whether to change state law to count incarcerated people as residents of their home districts before legislative districts are drawn for the next decade.

“The Senate’s passage of S.B. 753 is a tremendous victory,” said Corrie Betts, Criminal Justice Chair of NAACP CT. “Prison gerrymandering operates as a modern day Three-Fifths Clause by disenfranchising Black communities. We are disappointed that the amended bill excludes incarcerated people serving life sentences without the possibility of release from its coverage and continue to stand on behalf of all incarcerated people. Nonetheless, prison gerrymandering is an intolerable, racist practice, and we applaud the Senate for taking action to abolish it. It’s now up to the House to do the same.”

Advocates argue that by counting incarcerated people where they are imprisoned for the purpose of redistricting — instead of their home communities — Connecticut denies incarcerated people meaningful representation. Prison gerrymandering inflates the power of the districts where prisons are located, which are predominantly white and rural, at the expense of districts where incarcerated people reside, which are predominantly Black, Latinx, and urban. Ten states have already enacted legislation to end this practice, including New York, California, and New Jersey.

“Prison gerrymandering is a fundamentally racist and undemocratic practice, and today’s historic Senate vote is good news. Connecticut is finally on its way to correcting the gross racial injustice of prison gerrymandering,” said Claudine Fox, Interim Public Policy and Advocacy Director of ACLU CT. “We are happy to see critical progress on this issue, and the House must now step up to pass S.B. 753. It is disappointing that this bill has excluded people who are serving life sentences, as someone who is serving a life sentence, who will never breathe a free breath of air in the prison district where they are caged, should be counted as a resident of the place where they last had a choice about where to live, not in the place where the state has chosen to imprison them. S.B. 753 remains a critical chance to advance racial justice and protect democracy in Connecticut, and the House must take it.”

NAACP CT and ACLU CT have long supported ending prison gerrymandering, and in early March, both organizations launched a campaign to support S.B. 753. At a public hearing before the Government Affairs and Election Committee on March 10, dozens of advocates and stakeholders testified in support of the bill, without any testimony in opposition. Natasha Brunstein ’22, a student in the clinic, testified in support of S.B. 753 at the public hearing.

The bill currently has 34 co-sponsors, including longtime champions such as Sen. Gary Winfield and Speaker Matt Ritter. Other elected officials and organizations across Connecticut have announced their support for legislation to end prison gerrymandering this session, including:

  • Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill
  • Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden
  • Campaign Legal Center
  • Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT)
  • Connecticut AFL-CIO
  • Common Cause in Connecticut
  • Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities
  • Connecticut State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition
  • Connecticut Voices for Children
  • Hartford Foundation for Public Giving
  • Hispanic Federation
  • Latino Justice PRLDEF
  • League of Women Voters of Connecticut
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
  • Prison Policy Initiative
  • SEIU District 1199 NE

The Yale Law School Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic addresses issues of national security, anti-discrimination, climate change, and democracy through litigation, policy advocacy, and strategic planning.