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Amy Traub

Count the Prisoners at Home and Give Power to the Cities

As the marathon budget session drags on, New York State legislators are finally poised to reform a system that has siphoned political power and resources away from New York City and the state’s other urban centers for decades. As former DMI Criminal Justice Fellow Ezekiel Edwards noted in a 2006 DMIBlog post, gerrymandering state legislative districts based on their prison populations has perverse political consequences:

According to the 2000 Census, over 44,326 New York City residents were counted as upstate residents, whereas only 586 upstate residents were counted in New York City, resulting in a net loss to the five boroughs of 43,740 residents. By deeming these inmates as "residents" of the county that imprisons them, the Census Bureau increases the sizes of various upstate districts --- and hence their political might --- while simultaneously decreasing the size and influence of certain New York City districts. In fact, the prisoners' importance to certain upstate political districts is so great that there are seven state Senate districts in New York that would not qualify as districts without their prison populations…

DMI’s Afton Branche has forcefully argued for the importance of counting undocumented immigrants in the census. The issue here is similar: when it comes to allocating funds and distributing political power, everyone in the community counts. Prisoners should be reckoned in the communities where they’ve lived their lives.

In April, Maryland set the stage for reform with the "No Representation Without Population Act” restoring the political power that Baltimore was losing to rural counties with large prison populations. The measure was rightly hailed as a major civil rights advance by the ACLU and NAACP. Now, the hard work of organizations like the Prison Policy Initiative and State Senator Eric Schneiderman may finally be paying off to end prison-based gerrymandering in New York as well.

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Posted at 12:20 PM, Jul 02, 2010 in Cities | Civil Rights | Criminal Justice | Democracy | Prisons
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