A Little common sense: Three fallacies about prisons and New York redistricting

by Peter Wagner, April 18, 2007  

It should come as no surprise that one of the few people to publicly oppose changing the way the U.S. Census Bureau counts people in prison would be the New York State Senator with the largest imprisoned population: Senator Elizabeth Little. What is noteworthy, however, is that Little’s recent comments to the Glens Falls Post-Star rest upon some of the most common fallacies about how our criminal justice and electoral systems work.

People in prison are not residents of the places where they are locked up

The Census Bureau counts people in prison as residents of the places where they are incarcerated, and the New York state legislature currently relies on Census Bureau data to draw its legislative districts each decade. But the New York State Constitution expressly states that a prison is not a residence.

The redistricting process is designed to ensure that each group of residents in the state has the same access to government, as required by the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” standard. Yet crediting Senator Little’s district with thousands of phantom constituents reduces the number of real constituents to which she must appeal for re-election and allows her to focus narrowly on the particular needs of this more limited pool.

Artificially reducing her district’s population also moves thousands of people who would otherwise be in her district into neighboring districts. Since many of these people work in corrections, legislators in these neighboring districts will face pressure to support the corrections agenda. The other needs and priorities of upstate New York suffer as a result.

Though the prisons themselves may be closely linked to life in Little’s district–mostly in the jobs they provide her actual constituents–the people inside those prisons maintain durable ties to their home communities. The almost 13,000 people incarcerated in Little’s district, for example, have nearly 15,000 children, many of whom regularly make the day-long trek with loved ones to visit their imprisoned parents. Very few of the people incarcerated in Little’s district actually hail from there.

Most people incarcerated in Little’s district are serving sentences far short of the ten-year lifespan of legislative districts

Senator Little told the Post-Star, “[b]asically, these people are here, it’s where they’re living. Many of these people are here for life.” In fact, of the nearly 13,000 state prisoners in Little’s district, only 18 are serving life sentences.

Half of the state’s prison population will be released in the next 15 months, and the Department of Correctional Services moves people in prison around frequently. Half of the people in prison in Little’s district have been in their current prison for less than 6 months. So while the prisons themselves exude an air of permanence, the people held there are far more transitory.

Basing districts on prison populations is bad for rural democracy

Senator Little’s sprawling district comprises six upstate counties. All four of the counties that contain state prisons — Clinton, Franklin, Essex and Washington — disagree with Little that people in prison should be counted “where [they] are at the time of the census.” Each county ignores the prison populations when dividing up political power within the county. That so many local districting bodies have diverged from the state practice shows just how many problems the current practice creates.

In Franklin County, for example, where almost 11% of the population reported in the Census is incarcerated people from elsewhere in the state, the chair of the county legislature called the practice of ignoring prison populations in redistricting a “no-brainer.” Had the prison populations not been removed from the count, every Franklin County resident who lived near the prisons in Malone would have given the political power of 3 residents elsewhere in the county.

Clinton County excludes the prison population when drawing its county legislative districts. Neighboring Essex and Washington counties don’t have legislative districts, but they too disregard prison populations when apportioning political power to the towns represented on the County Board of Supervisors.

Conclusion

When the first Census was taken in 1790, counting people in prison as residents of the facilities may have made sense. The penitentiary was still in its infancy, and most people in prison were incarcerated close to home. More crucially, the concept of redistricting did not yet exist. The Census was used strictly to determine the relative population of each state to determine the size of its congressional delegation. It would not have mattered if an incarcerated person were counted at home in Brooklyn or in prison in Attica as long as he was not counted in New Jersey. Though the uses for Census data have drastically changed since then, the Census Bureau continues to count people in prison the same way.

In a 2006 report, “Tabulating prisoners at their ‘permanent home of record’ addresses,” the Bureau stated that collecting home addresses would cost $250 million, because many prisons don’t collect home addresses or have complete ones on file. The National Research Council rejected this assertion in its report “Once, only once, and in the right place,” declaring that the Census Bureau should start collecting the home addresses of people in prison and determine whether they could be used in the Census.

In the meantime, State Senator Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan) has proposed a bill that would ensure that the data used for New York state and county redistricting counts people in prison where they are from, not where they are housed. Schneiderman’s bill could be a first step towards removing the accidental incentives that align the state’s political agenda with the corrections agenda.

Source for Senator Little quotes: Will Doolittle, “Inmate population affects Senate district lines”, Post-Star (Glenns Falls, NY), October 9, 2006

One Response

  1. Dan Jenkins says, 1 day, 22 hours after publication:

    Thank you for this report on the comments of State Senator Betty Little regarding the counting of prisoners in the redistricting population of the New York State Senate.

    I am one of her constituents, and I was involved in redistricting lawsuit in Franklin County a few years ago.

    The issues in that case did not involve counting the prison population, because, as you report, our elected county officials all agreed that would create an absurd result. Interestingly, I was supported financially in the lawsuit by the Chairman of the Republican party in Franklin County, who concurred with the Democrats here that counting prisoners makes absolutely no sense for purposes of local reapportionment. Our lawsuit challenged a county legislative districting plan that was more than 20% out of balance. We did manage to win. (Wells v. Franklin County)

    However, Senator Little, also a Republican, appears to support the reverse policy at the state level.

    I would be willing to make a direct inquiry to the office of Senator Little and ask about this apparent conceptual conflict. If you contacted me to discuss this, I could be sure that I was fully briefed before discussing this issue with Senator Little herself, or with someone on her staff.

    Dan Jenkins
    Tupper Lake, New York

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