Crooked Lines, Part 3: State's Prison Population Becomes Political Pawn
Prisoners may not be able to vote, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t used for political advantage. As NY1 political reporter Bobby Cuza explains in part three of his "Crooked Lines" series, when it comes time to draw district lines, prisoners have proved to be a valuable commodity.
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Albany has been called the country's most dysfunctional legislature. Voters say they're fed up. Polls show a disapproval rating of about 75%. And yet, state lawmakers are practically invincible at the polls. This year, 188 state legislators are running for reelection; in the Sept. 14 primary, exactly four of them were defeated. Most didn't even face a challenger.
How is this possible?
One reason is the state's redistricting process. Every 10 years, after the Census, legislative districts must be redrawn to account for population changes. And the ones drawing the lines...are the legislators themselves. Specifically, the majority parties in each house of the legislature. And historically, they've manipulated the lines in ways that practically guarantee their members get reelected, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Good-government groups say it's a glaring conflict of interest, and are pushing for reform in time for the next redistricting cycle, which begins early next year.
This four-part series takes a deeper look.
In politics, population equals power. The more people there are in any given area, the more seats in the legislature -- even if those people happen to be in prison. In fact, because the U.S. Census has always counted prisoners wherever they’re locked up and not in their hometowns, many advocates say rural, upstate areas (where most state prisons are located) have enjoyed an unfair advantage in Albany.
"It’s really been a system of artificially inflating the population of prison districts at the expense of the poor communities and by definition, troubled communities," said State Senator Eric Schneiderman.
Statistics show half of all state prisoners are from New York City. But 91 percent of the state’s prison cells are outside the five boroughs.
Critics say State Senate Republicans took full advantage of this discrepancy when they redrew district lines in 2002. In fact, without prisoners, seven upstate senate districts wouldn’t have enough people to meet the minimum population requirement.
However, all of this is going to change when district lines are redrawn beginning early next year. That’s because this summer, Albany passed historic legislation requiring that, for purposes of redistricting, all prisoners be counted in their hometowns.
The bill, sponsored by State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and State Senator Eric Schneiderman, will effectively boost the city’s population by about 30,000. Many upstate lawmakers opposed the change, calling it a power grab by city Democrats, and arguing that prisoners are a burden on local resources. But advocates say most prisoners serve less than three years and invariably return home.
"And while they are incarcerated, they can’t vote, they don’t participate in civic life," Jeffries said.
"They don’t go to the same schools. They don’t use the same libraries. They don’t drive on the same roads. And in some instances, their interests may be at odds with the people who are not prisoners," said Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice.
With the legislation, New York became only the second state in the country, after Maryland, to change the way prisoners are counted. Advocates say they hope other states will follow suit.