Coalition Praises Lawmakers for Ending Prison Gerrymandering

August 4, 2010  

Coalition Praises Lawmakers for Ending Prison Gerrymandering:

Budget Action Will Bring Greater Fairness to Drawing Lines for Legislative Districts

Albany, NY — The Coalition to End Prison-Based Gerrymandering, a coalition of over 70 statewide policy, advocacy, civil rights, good government and community organizations, thanked lawmakers today for passing legislation to end the unjust and undemocratic practice of prison-based gerrymandering. If signed into law by Governor Paterson, New York will join Maryland, Delaware and 13 upstate New York counties, including Wyoming, Washington, Sullivan, Cayuga, Chemung, Clinton, and Franklin, that have already ended prison-based gerrymandering and adopted a fairer method of apportioning political power.

“For decades incarcerated individuals have been used by state politicians as pawns, giving more representation to some communities and less to others,” said Karen Scharff, Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York, the convener of the Coalition to End Prison-based Gerrymandering. “The Senate and Assembly took courageous action today that will mean fairer representation for every New Yorker. Now it is up to Governor Paterson to sign the bill into law and end the undemocratic, unconstitutional and racist practice of prison-based gerrymandering.”

Prison-based gerrymandering is an antiquated practice by which state legislative district lines are drawn based on Census population counts that include people in prison as residents of their place of incarceration, instead of their home communities. This practice drastically inflates the political representation of some communities, and dilutes the representation of all other communities. Today, the legislature, as part of the revenue bill, fixed the broken system by requiring people in prison to be counted in their home communities for the purposes of redrawing district lines. The original legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering was sponsored by Senator Eric Schneiderman and Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries. The legislation will not affect the distribution of federal funding.

“We applaud the State Legislature for including in the budget the important provision that will restore the principle of one person, one vote that is fundamental to our democracy,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The strength of your vote shouldn’t depend on if your legislative district contains a prison or not, and the passage of this provision brings fairness to voting in New York.

If today’s bill is signed by the Governor, New York would become the third state in the nation to prohibit prison-based gerrymandering. Maryland’s Governor signed a similar bill into law in April of this year. The Delaware bill will be signed by their Governor soon.

The law will impact New York’s next set of district lines scheduled to be drawn in 2012. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, prison-based gerrymandering distorts State Senate, Assembly, municipal and county districts. Seven of the current New York State Senate districts meet minimum population requirements only by claiming incarcerated people as residents, and in some rural municipal and county districts, half of the population is incarcerated.

All upstate residents who live near but not immediately adjacent to a large prison will benefit from this bill which requires the corrected counts to be used in municipal and county redistricting. Municipal and county districts are smaller than state legislative districts, so the impact of prison-based gerrymandering is very dramatic. For example, under the new law the Rome City Council will no longer be able to use prison populations to give one ward twice the influence warranted by its actual population,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director the Prison Policy Initiative and author of numerous reports on prison-based gerrymandering in New York and nationally.

“When I was being counted upstate when I was in prison, the community that I came from was being punished as well by having their vote diluted. It doesn’t make political sense to be counted in a place where you can’t vote and don’t use services. This bill isn’t about money or jobs, it’s about political power,” said Ramon Velasquez, a leader in Voices Of Community Advocates & Leaders (VOCAL) and New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN).

“Passage of the prison-based gerrymandering legislation championed by Senator Eric Schneiderman and Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries is a huge victory for democracy. The new law promises a fair and equal division of political representation across the state,” said Steven Carbó, Senior Program Director at Demos.

“People who have been incarcerated know that a prison cell is not a home. Passing this law that eliminates prison-based gerrymandering recognizes that fact and brings New York State one step closer to ending the treatment of people in prison as a commodity,” said Alan Rosenthal, Co-Director of Justice Strategies at Center for Community Alternatives.

“For too long New York legislative districts have been constructed on the backs of ‘ghost voters,’ packing in prisoners who counted towards the district size but who were not permitted to vote. At the same time, the home communities – to which the vast majority of incarcerated people return – were severely under-represented in our government,” said Erika Wood of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Today the legislature assured that all communities in New York have equal representation and an equal voice in our government. We urge Governor Paterson to sign this landmark legislation into law,” said Wood.

“When community members from across the state come together, we can right historic injustices, as the passage of the measure ending prison-based gerrymandering shows,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY. “To have effective political representation, we need a fair and equitable drawing of political district lines. We at Common Cause/NY hope that this is the first step towards reforming our state’s redistricting process, so that it is no longer politically controlled.”

“Prison-based gerrymandering violates the basic principle of one person, one vote — that all individuals should have an equal voice in the democratic process. By rejecting this practice, the New York legislature has taken a tremendous step forward, toward an electoral system that will represent all communities fairly and equally. We urge Governor Paterson to sign this important legislation into law immediately, which would speak to his commitment to civil rights and basic principles of equality,” said Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

“Citizens Union is pleased that the practice of prison-based gerrymandering is nearing an end with the legislature taking a welcome action by passing needed reforms to count prisoners at their residences prior to incarceration rather that the prisons where they serve sentences. The practice of counting prisoners in districts in which they can’t even vote is nothing more than a political game of three card monte. Like the game, the prisoners get shuffled around and someone else gains at their expense,” said Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey. “We urge the Governor to approve this important reform, and encourage the legislature to pass other needed redistricting reforms.”

“Prison-based gerrymandering is unconstitutional and violates a basic principle of democracy by diluting the political power of people of color. Ending this process will help ensure that all people in New York State count equally and have fair political representation,” said Emily NaPier, Justice Task Force Chairperson at Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse.

“Counting prisoners where they are incarcerated punishes families and communities. We applaud the New York State Legislature for taking a step in the right direction,” Melanie Campbell, President & CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

“Disproportionate representation of Blacks and Latinos in this country’s criminal justice system and across New York’s prisons has led to racially skewed political influence. For decades, communities that are already dealing with family separation, income loss, and stigma have also seen their political power diluted. This legislation will change that, and restore full voice and representation to the South Bronx and many other neighborhoods statewide,” said Robin Steinberg, Executive Director, The Bronx Defenders.

For more information about the Coalition to End Prison-Based Gerrymandering, visit http://CorrectTheCount.org.

One Response

  1. Joseph Jazz Hayden says, 1 day, 2 hours after publication:

    Having prisoners counted in their communities for the census is a victory over the New Jim Crow (keeping in mind that the NYS constitution clearly states that prisoners are not residents of their prison communities). A much greater victory can be acheived when prisoners right to vote is restored to them and their communities. Incremental reforms have their place but the victims of these unjust and racist policies demand more. We, as advocates, must incorporate these incremental reforms in our struggle but only as tactical and strategic goals on our way to dismantling this New Jim Crow. Empowerment of the citizen prisoners by eliminating felon disenfranchisement and all other collateral consequences of a felony conviction (in our lifetime).

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