by Derek Gilna
The First Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s order barring the city of Cranston, Rhode Island from counting the 3,433 prisoners held at the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI), located in that city’s Ward Six, for census purposes.
The plaintiffs in the case, including four local residents and the state ACLU chapter, had argued that inclusion of those prisoners in the census count diluted “the votes of voters in the City’s other five wards in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
In granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the district court found that “the inmates [at ACI] have no interest in Cranston’s public schools, receive few services from the City, and have no contact with Cranston’s elected officials.”
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Evenwel v. Abbott, 136 S.Ct. 1120 (2016), however, the First Circuit reversed. “The Rhode Island Constitution specifies that state legislative districts ‘shall be constituted on the basis of population and ... shall be as nearly equal in population ... as possible.’ R.I. Const. art. VII, § 1; id. art. VIII, § 1,” the Court of Appeals wrote.
Cranston’s city charter, which was approved by the state, followed the practice used by most states – which was to designate districts “based on total-population data from the [federal] Census, which includes prisoners.” As noted in Evenwel, that practice is “plainly permissible.”
The plaintiffs alleged that Cranston had improperly inflated the voting power of non-incarcerated voters in Ward Six. However, the facts showed that most prisoners only stayed an average of approximately three months, often maintained permanent addresses elsewhere and in some cases voted in other districts outside the prison, and a high percentage were pre-trial detainees who were not barred from voting.
“There has been no allegation that the Census has mistakenly assigned the ACI inmates to a place that was not their residence at the time the Census was conducted, nor has there been any allegation that the assignment resulted in ‘discriminatory treatment’ of the inmates or any other party,” the appellate court wrote. “The inclusion of the prisoners in the 2010 Census data for the City affords a presumptively valid reason for including them in the City’s Redistricting Plan.”
The First Circuit also noted in its September 21, 2016 ruling that Rhode Island’s Constitution “does not require Cranston to exclude the ACI inmates from its apportionment process, and it gives the federal courts no power to interfere with Cranston’s decision to include them.” Accordingly, the district court’s order was reversed and the case remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment for the city. See: Davidson v. City of Cranston, 837 F.3d 135 (1st Cir. 2016).
Whether or not to include prisoners in census counts has been a longstanding and contentious issue, and a focus of the Prison Policy Initiative’s Prison Gerrymandering Project. [See: PLN, Dec. 2012, p.1; Oct. 2010, p.18].
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Related legal case
Davidson v. City of Cranston
|837 F.3d 135 (1st Cir. 2016)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition