Cheating at the ballot box is not how you fix other injustices

Prisons don't pay property taxes. But violating the state and federal constitutions by cheating during the redistricting process is not the solution.

by Peter Wagner, February 11, 2010

I usually don’t publish and respond to anonymous email that comes in, but I just received a message that almost perfectly sums up the talking points of the supporters of prison-based gerrymandering. While I can’t confirm it’s authenticity beyond the fact that it was sent from upstate New York, this is an illustration of some of the misunderstandings that underlie the debate about ending prison-based gerrymandering in the state:

You just don’t get it, Correctional Facilities DO NOT pay state, local, of fire taxes, counting inmates in the districts where they are incarcerated offsets this. Also these people are in prison for a reason if they wanted to be counted in their districts they should not have committed the crime. Ihave an idea why don’t you count the inmates and we charge your communities $40,000 or so per inmate for room and board. You see like most Americans I see this for what it is a power play by downstate democrats to help them stay in power. It’s not about the inmates it’s all about political power.

My response:

The federal Constitution requires a state to distribute political power equally, on the basis of population, and the New York State Constitution is explicit that a prison cell is not a residence:

“no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.” New York State Const. Article 2, Section 4.

As Glenn Martin recently explained in a letter to the editor, it’s simply not true that the communities that contain prisons pay the full cost of incarceration. The $40,000 annual expense that you anonymous writer cites is born by the taxpayers of the entire state, and all other incidental costs of the people in prison are covered personally by family members.

That said, the anonymous writer is correct that in New York, correctional facilities do not pay local property taxes. And they probably should. In Massachusetts and some other states, the state prisons make payments to local governments in lieu of taxes; and in my conversations with local officials in upstate New York I have often suggested negotiating for such payments.[1]

If a town is bearing economic costs by having a prison that are not being met by the state prison system, the town should seek redress in kind from the state. It should not seek to violate the state and federal constitutions by cheating during the redistricting process.


[1] However, in upstate New York, there has historically been a reluctance to antagonize the Department of Corrections by highlighting any negative effects of a prison. More typically, some of these towns have competed with each other to be more accommodating to the Department than the others in the hopes of getting a prison and the perceived jobs benefit that a prison brings. But that is beyond the point here.

2 responses:

  1. […] The Senator is right: prisons cost money. The state pays the actual cost of incarceration, although sometimes communities do not recover the indirect costs of hosting a tax-exempt institution. Those communities should look to recover those costs in-kind, and not by gaming the electoral system. […]

  2. […] suffers because the state is not paying for the full costs of incarceration, the answer is to seek redress in kind from the state, not stuff the ballot […]

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