An End to Prison-Based Gerrymandering in New York State

27Jan12

Photo via Prisoners of the Census

Lawmakers released their proposal for new state Assembly and Senate legislative districts yesterday.  Opposition to the crooked map lines is coming from many different areas, but there is at least one aspect of the new districts that is unquestionably good: they count New York residents where they are from.

Until 2010, people who were incarcerated were counted as residents  of the towns where they were locked up, not their home community. This artificially inflated the populations of the mostly rural, Upstate legislative districts where prisons are located, giving those districts a greater share of the state’s Assembly and Senate seats.

State lawmakers took a step towards electoral fairness two years ago when they ended this practice, called “prison-based gerrymandering.”  While the Upstate Republican challenge to restore prison-based gerrymandering continues, they have dropped their stalling tactics on implementation.

This makes New York state one of the national leaders in ending prison-based gerrymandering.  Across the United States, the problem persists. Peter Wagner, of the Prison Policy Initiative finds, “more people now live in prison and jail than in our three least populous states combined. Organized differently, they would have six votes in the United States Senate.”

Over 80% of New York State’s incarcerated population comes from New York City and it’s surrounding suburbs but 90% of prisons are located outside the City.  When people are forcibly relocated to sparsely populated Upstate towns, the incarcerated population of some rural New York assembly districts reached as much as 7%.

The complaint filed in Little v. LATFOR to keep prison-based gerrymandering explained that hosting a prison often means a loss of local revenues and added costs.  Among these include, “local courts, hospitals and health services, water, sewer and other infrastructure. Such communities must consider incarcerated persons within their local population when budgeting and planning for fire, rescue, water, sewer, sanitation, road maintenance, and other public services.”

These communities clearly bear the economic burden of sustaining incarcerated people through higher taxes. When the state and federal government fund infrastructure, the money is often used for projects related to the prison and do not benefit the town.

Further, if a person is charged with a crime while they are incarcerated, that person is tried in the host community’s local court, increasing legal and policing expenses dramatically.

That prison towns must draw on their own infrastructure budgets and increase individuals’ taxes to support a state department truly is a problem. However, the suit implied that removing the incarcerated population as political constituents would create further added costs for prison towns and counties, when this was not the case; the law ending prison-based gerrymandering did not affect the monetary aid for those towns and counties.  That prisons impose on town budgets is another reason the state should close more prisons in 2012.

Milk Not Jails works to create an Upstate economy built not on locking people up, but on getting people milk.  We applaud the Republican legislators for dropping their court challenge and look forward to partnering with representatives from across the state to end unjust criminal justice policy.

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