Peter Wagner, Executive Director
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Times Herald-Record asks: Who gets to count inmates?

by Peter Wagner, March 1, 2010  

Keith Goldberg writes about the effort to end prison-based gerrymandering in New York State in the Times Herald-Record (Orange County, NY). On Feb 19, the paper’s editorial board said that “a politician should be embarrassed to claim that people held in prisons should count as constituents” and called for the state to pass legislation to end the practice of padding legislative districts with prisons.

The editorial concluded with the pessimistic prediction that a lawsuit would be necessary to end prison-based gerrymandering, and today’s article takes on the legal and political arguments that are holding up reform.

The whole article is worth reading, but the end is excellent:

Wagner admits some enthusiasm over the bill is partisan. But he says the issue shouldn’t be; [Republican Senator John J.] Bonacic and upstate senators of non-prison districts should want change, too. “John Bonacic may have about 2 percent prisoners in his district, but Betty Little (R-Queensbury) has 5 percent,” Wagner says.

Politics aside, Bonacic believes state prisoners should be counted differently. He’d like prisoners to declare what community they’re from. He also thinks those serving life or long-term sentences should be counted where they’re jailed.

And he’d like the conversation to include other transient groups, such as college students and second homeowners. “If you want to resolve the residence issue, do it for everybody,” Bonacic says.

Wagner says Bonacic’s ideas have merit. He also admits that legislative-based gerrymandering — which Bonacic says he’s challenged for years — is a larger sore spot. Still, Wagner says the prison bill would make things more honest.

Prisoners may be pawns in the current system, but Wagner says their neighbors are the bigger victims.

“My neighbor hits me over the head and robs me, he goes to a jail in another district,” Wagner says. “Now, you’re going to dilute my vote by counting him in another district, too?”

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