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Prisoners of the Census

State Sen. Neil Breslin supports the downstate effort to change the state’s system of counting the incarcerated

by Elizabeth Knapp on February 4, 2010

In anticipation of this year’s census, advocates in New York state are adamant in their efforts to mend what they call the state’s flawed system of counting prisoners where they are jailed, instead of where they resided prior to—and, presumably, where they will return after—incarceration.

Last week, the coalition was joined by Sen. Eric T. Schneiderman (D-Manhattan) and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) to announce the introduction of a bill to end the state’s current practice of prison-based gerrymandering. A press conference was held Monday to include the support of Sens. Antoine Thompson (D-Buffalo) and Neil Breslin (D-Albany).

According to Breslin, New York state has built 43 new prisons since 1976—all of which are upstate. Sixty-six percent of prisoners in these facilities come from New York City, while 34 percent are originally from upstate urban areas, such as Albany, Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo. Currently, most of these prisoners are represented as residents of the counties in which they are incarcerated at the time the census is taken.

The current way in which the census operates gives many small upstate towns a false sense of their own population and power, thus inflating the remaining residents’ votes and diluting those belonging to more urban areas, where large prisons are not typically found, critics of the system complain. This misrepresentation infringes on the democratic concept of “one man, one vote.”

Breslin said that he is supporting this legislation to amend the way the census is taken, because “to do it any other way would be unfair and unequal.”

The coalition in favor of the legislation is led by Citizen Action of New York and includes the Prison Policy Initiative, two organizations that have been actively advocating for the state to put a halt to its practice of prison-based gerrymandering.

“This bill would require states and counties to draw fair districts,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Since districts are drawn based on Census data, “the way it is now, they ended up drawing districts where some people have considerably more say than others.”

According to Wagner, Schneiderman has been trying to pass a similar bill for about 10 years, with no success. The reason for this, he believes, is a misconception among legislators.

“There is a perception in some upstate communities that this bill would affect federal funding,” said Wagner. “It wouldn’t—that’s just simply wrong. All this bill would do is change how data is used in New York state. People think the bill is going to change what the Census Bureau does, which it’s not. It’s too late for that.”

“This has nothing to do with the way the census operates,” said Charlie Albanetti, spokesman for Citizen Action. “There are virtually no financial implications for any community in the state whatsoever. This legislation is about restoring fairness and democracy.”

Counties are able to use their own discretion in choosing how to determine their population, according to Albanetti. “But using prison populations completely distorts the representations within their own legislatures.”

Upon being released from correctional facilities, “those prisoners are not going to stay in those farm communities,” said Breslin, “they’re going to go back to where they live.”

Thirteen New York counties already have excluded the prisoner population as part of their census count. After the 2000 census determined that incarcerated individuals represent more than five percent of Essex County’s population, the Board of Supervisors enacted a local reapportionment law with the justification: “Prisoners incarcerated in state and federal correctional institutions live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of Essex County and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns.”

According to Wagner, there are seven counties in New York that would not meet their minimum population requirement if it were not for the prisons located within them. The passing of this bill would require the redrawing of county lines, in order to have an equal representation throughout the state.

Legislators and advocates hope to get this bill passed before the 2010 census is taken.

“We’re right up to the wire and people are really starting to pay attention,” said Wagner. “We’re really excited about all this activity, but this is just about the last moment we have.”