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Finally, fair counting is coming to New York State

CYRIL JOSH BARKER Amsterdam News Staff | 12/7/2011, 7:34 p.m.

It has been a long time coming, but it appears that New York City will finally be able to count many of the incarcerated as part of the city's population, rather than including them in the population where they are being held.

It is the result of a victorious court ruling pushed by Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, advocated by various civil rights groups and the New York State Democratic Party.

With the court decision, prison-based gerrymandering should end, most likely shaking up the state's redistricting process.

New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine upheld New York's law in the Little v. LATFOR lawsuit. Devine ruled that anyone serving time in prison should be counted at their last known address. A host of upstate prisoners lived in New York City before entering the prison system.

Until 2010, New York drew legislative districts around prisons and counted the people confined there as residents of the prison. This not only gave greater legislative representation to the areas around the prison, but also meant more federal and state dollars for those communities based on the presence of the incarcerated. In addition to upholding the new law, Devine said the old system had actually violated the state constitution.

"Though inmates may be physically found in the location of respective correctional facilities at the time the census is conducted, there is nothing in the record to indicate such inmates have any actual permanency in these locations or have intent to remain," Devine said in his decision.

The judge added that since inmates also transferred throughout the state and cannot vote, they do not have any ties or connections to the municipalities where they are living.

Schneiderman called the decision a victory and that the law violated people's voting rights. "This decision affirms and applies a fair standard to the drawing of state legislative districts and makes it easier for counties to do the same by providing them with an accurate data set," said Schneiderman.

The NAACP was instrumental in getting the law changed. According to a study by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 66 percent of the state's prisoners come from New York City, but 91 percent of them are incarcerated upstate. In the 2000 census, over 43,000 New York City residents were counted as members of upstate communities because of prison-based gerrymandering.

Assistant counsel to the NAACP Dale Ho said that the decision ensures fairness when it comes to redistricting. "By upholding the state's historic law, today's decision has taken a tremendous step forward toward an electoral system that will represent all communities fairly and equally," said Ho.

The decision will most likely have a favorable affect on the Democratic Party in New York State, as a large number of inmates live in mostly Democratic Black communities, leading to more representation for the party in the Senate and Assembly.

Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright said that the decision to change the rules was long overdue. "Republicans have been using it to their advantage to increase their numbers," he said. "Finally, its something that has been needed since redistricting was started in the 19th century. Inmates need to be counted where they are. It's a body blow for Republicans and it will put an end to democratic disenfranchisement."

Brooklyn Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries is also satisfied with the decision, citing that New York was only the second state in the country to count incarcerated individuals in their home communities for purposes of legislative reapportionment.

Kings County has more state prison inmates than any other county in the state. Without prison populations from Brooklyn and other New York City neighborhoods, seven of New York's state Senate districts from the 2000 redistricting cycle would not have met the minimum population requirements under federal law.

"I am gratified that the court arrived at the right decision," said Jeffries. "Last year's historic legislation ended the injustice of prison-based gerrymandering in New York State. For the purpose of redistricting, counting people in their home communities is fair and one of the core tenets of our democracy."