Court Should Reject Lawsuit Seeking to Manipulate Prison Populations in New York Redistricting
April 6, 2011
Voting Rights Groups Support Improved Rules for Counting Incarcerated Persons
April 6, 2011–Demos and the Prison Policy Initiative, two national pro-democracy groups, expressed serious objections today to a lawsuit filed in state court that seeks to reinstate the discredited policy of miscounting incarcerated New Yorkers when state and local legislative districts are redrawn this year.
Landmark legislation, signed into law by Governor Paterson last August, corrected a long-standing miscount of incarcerated populations and directed that these individuals be counted as residents of their home communities for redistricting purposes.
The prior practice of padding legislative districts with prison populations artificially enhanced the weight of a vote cast in those districts at the expense of all districts that did not contain a prison. The lead plaintiff, Senator Betty Little, has 13 prisons in her district.
“Senator Betty Little filed suit this week to revive a legal fiction, claiming that individuals imprisoned in her district are members of the local community and should be counted there when it comes to drawing state and local legislative districts. Senator Little’s attempt to inflate the population of her district with more than 10,000 incarcerated, non-voting residents from other parts of the state will dilute the votes cast in all other districts.” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.
“The senator’s action also flies in the face of local practice. For many years, all of the counties represented by Senator Little, and most of the counties represented by her co-plaintiffs, have removed the prison population when drawing local legislative districts. This lawsuit threatens to overturn this common sense practice and force local county governments to draw incredibility distorted districts.”
The law being challenged contains provisions to help New York correct past distortions in representation which include:
- Seven of the current New York State Senate districts meet minimum population requirements only by claiming incarcerated people as residents.
- Forty percent of an Oneida County legislative district is incarcerated, and 50 percent of a Rome City Council ward is incarcerated, giving the people who live next to the prisons more influence than people in other districts or wards.
“The arguments in this lawsuit are clearly wrong. Incarcerated persons do not make their ‘home’ in the prison town in any meaningful sense; they are not permitted to interact with the prison town and they almost always return to their pre-incarceration community upon completion of sentence, on average within 34 months,” said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos.
“The miscount of incarcerated individuals called for in the lawsuit violates the fundamental one-person, one vote principle of our democracy and contradicts the New York Constitution, which clearly states that a prison is not a residence,” said Wright. “The plaintiffs here are wrong on the facts and wrong on the law. Their suit should be dismissed.”
One of the counties represented by Senator Little, Essex County, passed a local law in 2003 explaining why treating prison populations as “residents” of the county distorts fair representation:
“Persons incarcerated in 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 in which … the correctional facilities … are located.
“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….
“The Board of Supervisors finds that the population base to be utilized in and by the plan apportioning the Essex County Board of Supervisors should exclude state and federal inmates.”
The Prison Policy Initiative and Demos are partners in a national project to end prison-based gerrymandering, advocating for the Census Bureau and state and local governments to count incarcerated persons at their home residences. New York, Maryland and Delaware each passed legislation in 2010 to correct the way incarcerated people have been counted.
And while the Census Bureau did not have time to consider counting incarcerated people at home for the 2010 Census, in the next few weeks the Census Bureau will be publishing an Advance Group Quarters Table. The data will allow states and local governments to more readily identify prison populations in the redistricting data, and choose to either remove the prison populations or combine those counts with their own data to count incarcerated people at home.