Senate Passes Bill To End Prison Gerrymandering In New York

August 4, 2010

A Victory For Equal Representation For All New Yorkers,
Diverse Coalition Lauds Schneiderman Measure

In a victory for fundamental fairness and equal representation, Eric Schneiderman and the Senate Majority passed an historic bill Tuesday to count people in prison in their home communities for the purposes of redrawing district lines, rather than the districts where they are incarcerated. Passed as part of the revenue bill, the measure now awaits the Governor's signature.

Because New York draws legislative districts around prisons and counts the people confined there – who can’t vote – as residents of the prison, New York in effect uses the non-voting prison population to award greater legislative representation to districts that contain prisons at the expense of the communities that most incarcerated people call home. In one Assembly district in New York, 7 percent of its “residents” are in prison.

“We have made history. This is a major victory for the equal representation of all New Yorkers, and a proud moment for our state,” said Eric Schneiderman, the lead sponsor of legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering. “The practice of prison-based gerrymandering distorts the democratic process and undermines the principle of ‘one person, one vote.’ The overwhelming majority of upstate counties with large prisons already reject counting inmates for internal redistricting. This historic bill simply applies that 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.”

“Inmate-based gerrymandering is an unfair practice that undermines the integrity of our democracy. The passage of this reform promotes the principle of equitable representation throughout New York and result in a fairer process of redistricting. We will no longer tolerate the injustice of artificially enhancing the political power of a handful of communities on the backs of incarcerated individuals,” said Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries, the sponsor of the bill in the Assembly.
“The passage of this bill is a vital step toward ending the misuse of census numbers to bolster Republican districts with non residents. The present arrangement violates voter rights, civil rights and prisoner rights,” Rev. Al Sharpton.
Allowing communities to take in populations by force just to inflate legislative districts with prisons, violates any sense of equal protection or fundamental fairness.  It also creates perverse incentives for elected officials to support harsh mandatory minimum sentences, like the now-reformed Rockefeller Drug Laws.

If this bill is signed by the Governor, New York would become the first large state in the nation to prohibit prison-based gerrymandering.

Earlier this year, a broad-based coalition working with Senator Schneiderman and Assemblymember Jeffries organized to pass this legislation. The coalition is represented by Citizen Action of New York, The Public Policy and Education Fund, The Prison Policy Initiative, New York Civil Liberties Union, Demos, Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice, Fortune Society, Bronx Defenders, Praxis Project, Correctional Association of New York, Community Service Society, New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Center for Law & Social Justice, Nu Leadership Policy Group, Prison Families of New York and Exponents.

“We applaud the State Legislature for including in the budget the important provision that will restore the principle of one person, one vote that is fundamental to our democracy,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The strength of your vote shouldn’t depend on if your legislative district contains a prison or not, and the passage of this provision brings fairness to voting in New York.”

“All upstate residents who live near but not immediately adjacent to a large prison will benefit from this bill which requires the corrected counts to be used in municipal and county redistricting. Municipal and county districts are smaller than state legislative districts, so the impact of prison-based gerrymandering is very dramatic. For example, under the new law the Rome City Council will no longer be able to use prison populations to give one ward twice the influence warranted by its actual population,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director the Prison Policy Initiative and author of numerous reports on prison-based gerrymandering in New York and nationally.

“When community members from across the state come together, we can right historic injustices, as the passage of the measure ending prison-based gerrymandering shows,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.  “To have effective political representation, we need a fair and equitable drawing of political district lines. Common Cause/New York commends Senator Schneiderman and Assembly Member Jeffries for recognizing the injustice of prison-based gerrymandering and working so diligently with New Yorkers from communities across the state to pass this historic measure. By ending prison-based gerrymandering, the Legislature and Governor have not only ended an unfair practice, but have brought New York’s redistricting practice into alignment with our own state constitution and the requirements of federal voting rights law.”

“We at Common Cause/NY hope that this is the first step towards reforming our state’s redistricting process, so that it is no longer politically controlled.”

“Citizens Union is pleased that the practice of prison-based gerrymandering is nearing an end with the legislature taking a welcome action by passing needed reforms to count prisoners at their residences prior to incarceration rather that the prisons where they serve sentences. The practice of counting prisoners in districts in which they can't even vote is nothing more than a political game of three card monte. Like the game, the prisoners get shuffled around and someone else gains at their expense," said Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey. “We urge the Governor to approve this important reform, and encourage the legislature to pass other needed redistricting reforms.”
“Passage of the prison-based gerrymandering legislation championed by Senator Eric Schneiderman and Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries is a huge victory for democracy. The new law promises a fair and equal division of political representation across the state,” said Steven Carbó, Senior Program Director at Demos.

“Prison-based gerrymandering violates the basic principle of one person, one vote -- that all individuals should have an equal voice in the democratic process.  By rejecting this practice, the New York legislature has taken a tremendous step forward, toward an electoral system that will represent all communities fairly and equally. We urge Governor Paterson to sign this important legislation into law immediately, which would speak to his commitment to civil rights and basic principles of equality,” said Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

“People who have been incarcerated know that a prison cell is not a home. Passing this law that eliminates prison-based gerrymandering recognizes that fact and brings New York State one step closer to ending the treatment of people in prison as a commodity,” said Alan Rosenthal, Co-Director of Justice Strategies at Center for Community Alternatives.
Ramon Velasquez, a leader in Voices Of Community Advocates & Leaders (VOCAL) and NYCAHN said, "I didn't know I was being counted upstate for all those years when I was in prison, instead of where my home and family was. Nearly everyone who's locked up eventually returns home. It's not fair to be counted in a place where you can't vote and don't use services just for a political purpose. This bill isn't about money or jobs, it's about making democracy in our state work better."

“For too long New York legislative districts have been constructed on the backs of 'ghost voters,' packing in prisoners who counted towards the district size but who were not permitted to vote. At the same time, the home communities - to which the vast majority of incarcerated people return - were severely under-represented in our government. Today the legislature assured that all communities in New York have equal representation and an equal voice in our government.  We urge Governor Paterson to sign this landmark legislation into law," said Erika Wood of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

“Prison-based gerrymandering is unconstitutional and violates a basic principle of democracy by diluting the political power of people of color. Ending this process will help ensure that all people in New York State count equally and have fair political representation,” said Emily NaPier, Justice Task Force Chairperson at Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse.
“Counting prisoners where they are incarcerated punishes families and communities. We applaud the New York State Legislature for taking a step in the right direction,” Melanie Campbell, President & CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
For decades incarcerated individuals have been used by politicians as pawns, giving more representation to some and less to others,” said Karen Scharff, Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York, the convener of the Coalition to End Prison-based Gerrymandering. “The State Senate and Assembly took courageous action today that will mean fairer representation for every New Yorker. Now it is up to Governor Paterson to sign this into law and end the undemocratic, unconstitutional and racist practice of prison-based gerrymandering.” 
“Disproportionate representation of Blacks and Latinos in this country’s criminal justice system and across New York’s prisons has led to racially skewed political influence. For decades, communities that are already dealing with family separation, income loss, and stigma have also seen their political power diluted. This legislation will change that, and restore full voice and representation to the South Bronx and many other neighborhoods statewide,” said Robin Steinberg, Executive Director, The Bronx Defenders.
"Senator Eric Schneiderman, Assembly member Hakeem Jeffries, Peter Wagner and the countless other individuals and organizations who worked so hard on this campaign are to be congratulated for moving this historic piece of legislation to passage. At long last all New Yorkers will be counted and represented in a fair and equitable manner. The real winner today is democracy,” said Eddie Ellis, Executive Director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions