Prison Gerrymandering, a the process of drawing electoral districts that consider incarcerated people to be residents of the prison towns, has worked against New York City for many years, and the New York State Legislature has finally taken action to reduce its impact in our state.
As we have stated in the past, the Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the town where the prison is located rather than as residents of the town where they lived prior to becoming incarcerated. That approach causes large numbers of problems, including the predictable shifting of electoral power to prison towns. Prison towns are able to count non-voting incarcerated individuals as part of their voting districts, thereby giving the voters in those districts more electoral power than people living in areas that do not include a prison.
As we stated almost exactly two years ago:
"While, as of 2002, only 24% of those incarcerated in New York State are residents of Upstate New York, 91% of the prisoners are in that part of the state. Manhattan loses the votes of those incarcerated and must subsidize the education and lifestyle of upstate communities. Manhattan subsidizes the parks in upstate communities, and Manhattan's ability to fight back is limited by the increased voting power of upstate communities. In fact, many Federal program dollars are allocated based on the number of low-income residents in a given community, and the Census results in those dollars being provided to upstate communities who don't use the funds to aid those incarcerated individuals whose presence in their communities creates the windfall from the Federal Government.
It is worth noting that 80% of New York State's prisoners are Black or Latino, while the state's prison locations are nearly all in areas with very few Black or Latino residents. Though illegal drug use is equally common outside of communities of color as it is within communities of color, ninety percent of those incarcerated based on drug offenses are Black or Latino. Therefore, this theft from Manhattan is also part of a broader crime against ethnic minorities and people of color who reside in New York State. The impact of the diluted voting power and reduced resources that result from this theft is concentrated in neighborhoods where Black and Latino residents live in the largest numbers."
New York State Legislature Attacks Prison Gerrymandering
Last week, the New York State Legislature sent to Governor Paterson a new law that would count prisoners in their home communities rather than in prison communities for the drawing of local and state legislative districts going forward. All of those local and state legislative districts will be redrawn in 2011.
This new law is a wonderful achievement and a testament to the benefit of having the Democratic Party control the State Legislature and the Governor's Mansion; the commitment to true representative democracy is reflected in legislation.
Broader Problems Persist
The sad reality of this achievement is that it is narrow. Federal dollars will still be distributed based on prison Gerrymandering. Congressional districts will continue to be drawn using prison Gerrymandering. But, New York is improving the situation by correcting the problems it can correct. The full solution must come from Washington, DC.