Syracuse Post-Standard endorses bill to end prison-based gerrymandering

The Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York, has endorsed ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York State with a strong editorial:

by Peter Wagner, February 25, 2010

The Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York, has endorsed ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York State with a strong editorial:

Legislation would stop ‘prison-based gerrymandering’

By The Post-Standard Editorial Board
February 24, 2010

Cayuga County is the temporary home of more than 2,500 people who don’t want to live there. They live inside the state prisons in Auburn and Moravia and, as such, have little or nothing to do with county life and use few if any county services. All but a relative handful of them — 24 as of Jan. 1 — lived outside the county before they were sent off to prison.

Yet for the purposes of the U.S. Census, those inmates are considered Cayuga County residents. The Census numbers beef up the government aid the county receives and add to the county’s political clout because they are used when legislative districts are redrawn.

Both of those practices are unfair. Most of the inmates in Upstate prisons come from poor, urban communities. They have families in those communities and will eventually return to them — and use county services. Onondaga County, for example, has no state prisons, but currently has about 1,900 people serving time in prisons in other counties. That’s 1,900 people who will not be counted as Onondaga County residents in the Census.

The counties that benefit from the arrangement — those that contain state prisons — understand that it makes little sense to count inmates as local residents for redistricting purposes. Many of them don’t count the inmates as residents when they do their own redistricting of county legislature districts. Here’s what Essex County said when it changed its law:

“Persons incarcerated in the state and federal correctional institutions live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of Essex County and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns. … The inclusion of these federal and state correctional facility inmates unfairly dilutes the votes or voting weight of persons residing in other towns within Essex County.”

Exactly. And including them in the statewide redistricting effort dilutes the votes of people living in the counties from which the inmates came — and will return. It is nothing more than “prison-based gerrymandering,” as its opponents properly call it.

A bill introduced in the state Senate and Assembly would remedy that. The bill would require the state to count inmates as residents of their home communities for the purpose of legislative redistricting. The legislation would have no impact on funding that communities receive based on their Census counts.

State Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, who represents the Auburn area, calls the legislation an attempted power grab by New York City, where many of the inmates are from. He says it’s simple logic to count the inmates where they actually live — in the county where they are serving their prison terms.

We disagree. We think the proposal deserves quick passage as the state prepares to redraw all the Senate and Assembly districts in 2012. Ideally, that redistricting should be done by an independent commission, rather than by the Legislature itself, but that is an issue for another day. For now, fairness demands that whoever does the job counts prison inmates as residents in their home communities, providing those often-depressed communities with the resources and political clout to which they are entitled.

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