Correcting the Counts, NY State to Count Prisoners in Home Disrticts

08/05/2010 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Petro Policy Analyst on New York City and State Affairs

The New York State Senate passed legislation on Tuesday that would correct a long-standing distortion of democracy: the inclusion of prisoners in the population counts of state and local districts. The bill awaits Governor Paterson's signature, and he should quickly sign it.

The current way of counting prison populations has led to the "bloating" of districts that are located primarily in rural areas in upstate New York, artificially enhancing the weight of votes cast in these districts. The bill waiting for Paterson's signature would count the state's 71,000 prisoners in the districts where they resided before incarceration.

The change will primarily affect the redistricting set to take place next year after the 2010 Census results are finalized. The Prison Policy Initiative, a leading advocate for the new bill, found that seven of the state's senate districts would no longer meet the minimum population requirements under the new method of counting prisoners. While the new bill won't wipe these districts off of the map, it will result in some districts having to expand in order to meet the population minimum.

The bill would reassign an estimated 45,000 inmates to New York City for political representation. Currently, these inmates' interests are "represented" by upstate politicians who are more likely to represent the interests of the rural communities where prisons are located than the home districts of their inmate "constituents."

Way back in 2006, Ezekiel Edwards, the Drum Major Institute's former criminal justice fellow, pointed out that upstate politicians that benefit from the old way of counting inmate populations have a perverse incentive to seek "tough on crime policies" -- Rockefeller Drug laws, for example -- in order to preserve their jobs.

Now that incentive will be eliminated, the bill will redirect political power to places like New York City and Buffalo, which will regain their rightful political representation.