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State Senators hurt own districts in filing law suit

by Aleks Kajstura, April 11, 2011  

Oneida County, in upstate New York, would like to avoid prison-based gerrymandering when drawing their county Board of Legislators’ districts. Their Senator, however, was one of the nine that filed a law suit that is not only holding up their redistricting process, but threatens to force Oneida, as well as other counties across the state, to draw districts distorted by prison populations.

Robert Brauchle’s State debate over prisoners muddies county’s redistricting talks, published in the Observer-Dispatch, explains the problem:

In Oneida County Legislator David Wood’s district, about two-thirds of his constituents can go grocery shopping, drive a car and vote.

The remaining third are locked in prison cells.

Now, as the county prepares for the upcoming redistricting process to determine the boundaries for the Board of Legislators’ districts, officials are becoming increasingly unnerved about the partisan debate in Albany that will affect where those prisoners are counted.

A law signed by former-Gov. David Paterson in August counts prisoners in their pre-arrest locations during the redistricting process. Previously they had been counted in the location where they were incarcerated.

That change would impact the county Reapportionment Committee’s ongoing redistricting work to address population shifts within the county and to make the population even in each district.

But state Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, along with eight other Senate Republicans, have filed a lawsuit against the Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment and the state Department of Correctional Services to overturn the 2010 redistricting law.

“It’s not like they come here, and everything is self contained,” he said. “There’s a draw on resources and a cost to them being here.”

Until the process in the state Legislature plays out, the roughly 4,500 state prisoners in Oneida County will remain in limbo over whether they should officially be recorded as citizens in their location of incarceration or their pre-arrest homes.

Wood, the county Board of Legislators majority leader, said he would like to see prisoners counted at their pre-arrest locations.

“If we have to count them out of the cells, then we’ll do it that way,” said Wood, R-Rome, who represents a district that includes Mohawk Correctional Facility and Oneida Correctional Facility. “But this is stalling us right now in some bureaucratic time warp that we can’t get out of.”

Ramon Velasquez, of VOCAL, also responds to the law suit in an informative article that gives a first-person account of experiences with prison-based gerrymandering in the state, as well as some background on the issue.

Prison-based gerrymandering is not just a problem in New York; The Star Press highlights a similar example of grappling with the issue in Henry County, Indiana.

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