Census’ transfer of incarcerated population creates legislative stalemate in New York

by Peter Wagner, May 24, 2004

The current legislative stalemate in reforming New York’s drug laws might be the result of a Census Bureau quirk that counts prisoners as if they were residents of the prison town. Senate conference co-chairman Dale Volker is a former police officer opposed to many of the reforms proposed by Assembly conference co-chair Jeffrion Aubry of Queens. Aubry used to lead a social service agency that provided drug treatment.

Something else is reducing the clout of advocates for drug law reform: The U.S. Census. Each Senate district in New York City is missing about 1,800 incarcerated residents, with these residents instead credited to rural districts like Senator Dale Volker’s. One out of every 25 adults in Volker’s district is a prisoner barred by law from voting for or against the Senator. By the time these prisoners complete their sentences and are again allowed to vote, they will be back home in a different district.

The six prisons in Volker’s 59th district contain 8,951 prisoners including 2,391 drug offenders. These bodies swell Volker’s influence in violation of the Constitutional guarantee of one-person-one-vote. Prisons are big business in only a few districts, but every district in the state that sends people to prison sees its clout diminished in the legislature as a result of the Census Bureau’s counting method. Senator Volker has the right to advocate against drug law reform if he wishes, but his political clout should be based on the actual number of his rural constituents, and not on how many of New York City’s drug addicts are temporarily in rural prisons.

Source: Michael Cooper, Republicans and Democrats Clash on New York Drug Laws, New York Times, May 21, 2004 and Peter Wagner, Counting urban prisoners as rural residents counts out democracy in New York Senate Prison Policy Initiative, PrisonersoftheCensus.org December 1, 2003.

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