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Prison town legislators represent prisoners’ interests? Not quite.

by Peter Wagner, June 14, 2004  

On June 7, talks between the New York State Senate and the Assembly on how to best reform the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws broke down. Publicly, the dispute is over ideological disagreements, but an obscure Census quirk that counts prisoners as residents of the prison’s legislative district may be responsible for distorting how the debate is framed.

The Assembly wanted to reduce a broad range of drug sentences while the Senate wanted to focus only on the most extreme sentences. Previous columns (May 24, 2004 and December 1, 2003) have profiled the district of the Senator’s lead negotiator, Dale Volker. This column examines the district of another member of the Senate’s delegation to the conference committee, Crime Committee Chair Senator Michael Nozzolio.

The 54th District Seneca Falls Republican explained the Senate’s perspective at the start of the meetings: “Our focus is on the victim, not the drug dealer.” The Assembly members took the opposite approach, arguing that drug crimes are victimless crimes and should have sentences shorter than those imposed for violent acts.

An analysis of Senator Nozzolio’s district suggests that his opposition to a thorough repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws may not lie just in ideology but in an obscure Census quirk that counts prisoners as if they were residents of the prison town. Because 65.5% of New York State’s prisoners are from New York City, but only a few small prisons exist within the city, 43,740 city residents are counted as upstate residents. This swells the political power of upstate legislators and their real constituents while diluting the clout of New York City’s residents.

Senator Nozzolio’s district contains 3,551 prisoners, 1,105 of whom are imprisoned for a drug offense. Almost two-thirds (2,203) of the prisoners incarcerated in his district admit to drug use prior to incarceration. More than two-thirds (2,421) are from New York City or its suburbs. Few if any originate in his district, but all are counted as residents for the purposes of the Census and redistricting.

But Senator Nozzolio can safely ignore these constituents because New York State bars people in prison from voting. Districts are only drawn after the decennial Census, so a drop in the prison population would leave the shape of Nozzolio’s district unchanged until 2010. But the district’s economy would be in deep trouble if the prison population dropped further. More than 10,000 people work in the prisons in his districts.

The 14th Amendment requires each district to be drawn to contain the same number of people to ensure that each resident has equal access to government regardless of where she or he lives. Counting prisoners as if they lived in the prison district unconstitutionally amplifies the voices of the prison workers in the state capital, while diluting the votes coming from the prisoner’s home communities.

In order to change the electoral outcomes in favor of the upstate areas, the New York Senate deliberately drew their rural districts to contain fewer people than the urban districts. The fact that the Census Bureau credited the upstate region with the New York City’s prisoners just makes the problem worse. If the prisoners had been counted in the right place, Senator Nozzolio’s district would be missing 6% of its required population, while districts in Queens would have 4.6% too many people.

Said another way, every group of 90 prison guards and their neighbors in Nozzolio’s district gets as much political clout in Albany as 100 prisoners and their neighbors back in Queens. No wonder drug reform is stalled again in New York.

Source: Statistics from Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York and my own analysis of Census 2000, NYS DOCs data and Senator Nozzolio’s new district.

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