Home away from home: Where should prisoners count?

Posted by on Apr 1, 2010 in In the News | 1 comment

WKTV – NBC 2

Utica, NY

http://www.wktv.com/internal?st=print&id=89745552&path=/news/local

ALBANY, N.Y. (WKTV) – A proposed change to how the census counts prisoners would not effect funding.

According to Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative , there is no mention of federal funding in the legislation. Wagner says the purpose of the bill is solely to impact redistricting practices.

Several local leaders recently complained that the area would lose funding if the proposal becomes a law.

Currently, a prisoner is counted in the municipality where he is incarcerated. The Schneiderman/Jeffries bill would change that, having inmates counted in their home town.

Charles Albonetti of Citizen Action in New York says the legislation would restore fairness and democracy.

“One person, One vote,” Albonetti said. “People who live near prisons are getting more voting power and hence more political influence.”

How can that be?

Representative bodies must represent an equal number of people. That means all State Senate districts must be roughly equal. The same can be said for Board of Legislators districts and City Council wards.

For example, each Rome City Council ward is made up of about 5,000 people. 49% of the 2nd ward’s population is prisoners. That leaves only about 2,500 non-prisoners in the district. Meaning 2nd ward’s councilman is only representing about 2,500 people. As opposed to the 3rd district’s councilman, who represents 5,000 people. Each council member only has one vote. Thereby each council member has the same voting power. But because of the how prisoners are counted, not each individual is getting the same value from their representative.

Wagner points out that the census is only taken once every decade, but most prison sentences are less than ten years. And according to the Parole Board, most prisoners return to their home town upon release. So the current method of counting is weighed more in favor of localities with prisons.

Wagner also says the current counting practice is unconstitutional. According to Article 2, Section 4, of the New York State Constitution, incarceration does not change residency.

But funding and representation is not all State Senator Joseph Griffo is concerned about. The republican from the 47th District wants to make sure downstate does not have all the say.

“The real message here is that the people who want to change the system want to use it as a way to reduce the ability of Upstate New York to stand up and resist changes that are being pushed down our throats by Downstate politicians,” Griffo said. “Anyone living in this state in the past three years should be able to see that we need a stronger Upstate and not a weaker one.”

So far, 13 counties from across the state have adopted the new changes. Wagner hopes Oneida County will soon be added to that list.

“The biggest harm is it (the current system) changes the priorities of Upstate,” Wagner said.