Civil Rights Organizations File Motion to Defend Law Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering

Voters and Community groups intervene in suit to ensure that all New Yorkers are equally represented in state and local legislatures

May 17, 2011

Voters and Community Groups Intervening in Suit to Ensure that All New Yorkers Are Equally Represented in State and Local Legislatures

Brennan Center for Justice Jeanine Plant-Chirlin (646) 292-8322
Center for Law & Social Justice April Silver (718) 756-8501
Demos Lauren Strayer (212) 633-1413
LatinoJustice John Garcia (212) 739-7513
NAACP-LDF Melquiades Gagarin (212) 965-2783
NYCLU Michael Cummings (212) 607-3300 x363
Prison Policy Initiative Peter Wagner (413) 527-0845

Albany, NY – Today, top civil rights organizations filed a motion in New York Supreme Court asking to intervene to help defend New York’s new law allocating people in prison to their home communities for redistricting and reapportionment.

The Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Law and Social Justice, Demos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Prison Policy Initiative, representing fifteen rural and urban voters and three statewide nonprofit organizations, are seeking to defend the new law against a legal challenge brought by New York State Senator Elizabeth Little and others. The lawsuit, titled Little v. LATFOR, names the New York State Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) and the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) as defendants.

The new law requires that incarcerated persons be counted as residents of their home communities, in accordance with the New York State Constitution’s provision that incarceration does not change one’s residence. The legislation applies to state and local legislative redistricting, and would not affect federal funding distributions.

Previously, legislative districts with prisons were credited with the population of the disenfranchised people temporarily incarcerated there. This practice, often called prison-based gerrymandering, gives extra influence to voters who live in the district with the most prisons, and dilutes the votes of every resident of a district with no (or fewer) prisons. The new law corrects this bias and assures that all communities in New York have equal representation in our government.

The most dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering are in upstate counties and cities. For example, half of a Rome City Council ward is incarcerated, giving the residents of that ward twice the influence of other city residents. Recognizing the distorting effect of prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, thirteen New York counties with large prisons – including four in Senator Little’s district – have historically exercised their discretion to remove the prison populations prior to redistricting.

The new law brings consistency to redistricting in New York, prohibiting the state and all local governments from giving extra political influence to districts that contain prisons. Sen. Little’s lawsuit seeks to have the new legislation struck down, the effect of which would require legislative districts – most notably her own, which contains 12,000 incarcerated persons – to include prison populations in their apportionment counts to the detriment of all other districts without prisons. Returning to this practice would not only unfairly inflate the districts of those with prisons at the expense of those without but also violate the New York State Constitution.

The organizations seeking to intervene include:

  • The NAACP New York State Conference, the state-level body in New York of the NAACP, a membership organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing the civil rights of African Americans and other people of color. The Conference has approximately 90,000 members statewide. “Persons incarcerated in correctional institutions do not participate in the life of the town or county where they are incarcerated,” said Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference. “Sen. Little and her co-plaintiffs are seeking to reverse one of New York’s most important civil rights advances in the previous decade, which would unfairly dilute the voting rights of New Yorkers in every corner of the state.”
  • Common Cause / NY, the New York branch of Common Cause, a nationwide, nonpartisan organization with 20,000 members in New York State that advocates for honest, accountable, and responsive government. “The way legislative district lines are drawn impacts citizens’ ability to participate effectively in our democracy,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause / NY. “Prison-based gerrymandering is a fundamentally unfair practice whose end was met with overwhelming applause. Voters in every region of the state would be hurt by a repeal of the new law.”
  • Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York, or VOCAL -NY, a statewide grassroots membership organization building power among low-income people who are living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and incarceration, along with the organizations that serve them, to create healthy and just communities. “Many of our members live in communities that are heavily impacted by the criminal justice system and have a disproportionate number of residents sent to state prison,” said Ramon Velasquez, a VOCAL-NY leader. “Every district that has fewer prisons than Senator Little’s district loses representation from prison-based gerrymandering, but the districts that see many of their members counted in prison lose even more.”

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