Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Count inmates where they're from or where they are housed? Debate pits rural GOP areas v. urban

Last week reported the new choice for states to have the Census Bureau stop counting inmates in jurisdictions where prisons are located. In New York state, that debate is one of prisoner rights versus local risk. The nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative has launched a campaign to count the prisoners, whom they call "phantom constituents," in their home communities, which would benefit from the added population, David Sommerstein of National Public Radio reports. But officials in the localities with the prisons say the added population should be part of their consideration for the security risk.

The division mostly follows party lines, with rural Republican districts benefiting from the added population. Prison advocates say the added rural legislative representation usually votes directly against the inner-city interests of the inmates. Prisoners can't vote in the rural communities, and are "more interested in drug, crime and housing laws than, say, farms," Sommerstein writes. "The system of one person, one vote entirely breaks down when we take people from one community of interest — and then credit them to a completely different community for districting purposes," Peter Wagner of PPI told Sommerstein.

"The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn't want them [prisons]," Chuck Kelly, publisher of The Ogdensburg Journal in upstate New York, told Sommerstein. "We needed the jobs, so we went after those jobs." State Sen. Darrel Aubertine, who represents a district with five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg, says the prisons use water and sewer and other infrastructure and those services are paid for in part by the inmates being counted as part of the population. (Read more)

1 comment:

Peter Wagner said...

This NPR report was really disappointing. I get it that conflict makes good news and plays to the base well. But despite what overly partisan folks on either side might say, there is no need to see this as an urban vs. rural zero-sum game over either formula funding (which its not) or political pork. It's actually about democracy, fairness and accuracy; and those are principles where everybody has something to gain.

First, the NY state constitution says that incarceration does not change a residence, so this is a matter of law.

Second, everybody who lives in a district without a lot of huge prisons (which is most rural and most urban people) lose when a handful of districts cheat at redistricting time.

Third, counting prisoners as constituents distorts how the prison districts are drawn, and that distorts their legislative priorities. The single minded focus on prisons in some districts is not a good thing, especially when it wouldn't happen to the same extent if the districts were drawn fairly.

Fourth, if the impact on democracy is big at the state level, it is huge at the local level. Most counties in New York State ignore the prison populations when they draw local districts. to do otherwise would give the people who live immediately adjacent to the prison disproportionate influence over the future of their county. In some counties in other states, as much of 60 or 80%, and in some rural cities, 90% or more of a district is not residents but prisoners.

And in St. Lawrence County where publisher Kelly is, thousands of people are still seething mad about the county's decision in 2002 to for the first time include prisoners in the county population for redistricting purposes. Every 8 people who live next to one of the prisons gets as much say over the future of that struggling county as 10 people who live elsewhere.

That's not right, and they know it.