The Democratic-led state Legislature and a coalition of groups are looking to remove prisoners from the population count for the U.S. Census and for redistricting in 2012, lowering the population in many upstate Republican legislative districts.
The proposal calls for counting prisoners in their hometowns, rather than in the districts in which they are incarcerated. The prison population is significant in some rural districts: Seven state Senate districts, five of which are controlled by Republicans, wouldn’t meet minimum population requirements without including prisoners.
Advocates for the legislation, sponsored by New York City Democratic Assemblyman Hakim Jefferies and Sen. Eric Schneiderman, charged that it is unconstitutional that prisoners, who often reside in urban areas, are counted as residents of upstate districts solely to boost up the population of legislative districts.
The state has about 58,000 inmates.
“This is not an upstate-downstate issue,” said Schneiderman, saying the upstate cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse are also hurt by the population counts.He said he hopes the measure can pass this year.
“This is not something that is divided along geographical lines. It’s really a matter of the poor communities the prisoners come from losing their voting strength.”
But Republicans claimed that Democrats are trying to cut the GOP’s influence in the state. Whoever controls the state Legislature after this November’s elections will draw the legislative district lines for state and congressional seats in 2012 for the next ten years. The Census count will begin this year.
“It would obviously impact funds and representation,” said Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, Oneida County, who has one of the state’s largest prison population – about 3,500 prisoners—in his district.
Griffo said Democrats should be consistent if they want to remove the prison population from the upstate districts: They should also remove college students and military officers, who also are counted as living in the places where they go to school or serve.
He said local communities incur costs by host prisons, such as police and health-care services, and it would be unfair to remove them from the rolls.
“It makes me uneasy about when you have one-party rule and one-region domination. I think this is what it reflects more than anything,” Griffo said.