When legislators look at redistricting, the goal is to establish districts of equal size in order to satisfy the federal mandate of “one man, one vote”. However the system as it is currently set up counts a specific segment of our population in a way that some advocates suggest does more harm than good. We’re talking about the country’s 2 million currently incarcerated prisoners and how our annual Census counts them not as residents of their communities but instead as residents of the areas where they serve their sentences.
These district lines are redrawn and specific counties are given an artificial boost because of an influx of “silent residents” – this manipulation is often referred to as prison-based gerrymandering. A study done by the Prison Policy Initiative looked at New York State and highlighted the fact that 43,740 prisoners are the only reason why seven upstate districts meet the minimum population requirements for State Senate Seats – not surprisingly the area where a majority of the proponents come from and argue for the continuation of the this practice.
And while these upstate districts receive increased aid due to their skewed representation in local population, the areas that loss out the most from this miscalculation are the low income urban-centric neighborhoods, generally within the New York City area, that aren’t properly funded to provide the resources necessary to help these men and women when they complete their time and return back to their hometowns.
The fight over prison-based gerrymandering has been at the center of a possible deal to pass an independent redistricting bill in New York State this year. After banning the practice in August, the new Republican majority in the State Senate has vowed to overturn the measure either by legislative vote or court action and return to including prisoners as residents of upstate counties. Republicans have indicated any support for any wider reform dealing with redistricting will only come with the re-instatement of prison-based gerrymandering despite having already signed a pledge to support a redistricting law without these conditions during last year’s election. A bill recently released by the Governor Cuomo’s office calling for a bipartisan approach has become the newest wild card and how this stalemate will end is anyone’s guess. But I bet some of the people who’ll be watching the most attentively will include advocates on both sides of this contentious debate.
For more more information including studies, articles and info-graphs illustrating the facts and figures behind this issue visit the Prisoner Policy Initiative website