Friday, July 20, 2007

Prison Populations and Legislative Redistricting

Recently there was an AP article from an advocacy group arguing that State prison populations should not be included as part of local population counts, especially when it comes to redistricting.

The basic premise of the group is that these populations should be counted where they COME from, not where they are being housed. Since they are currently counted among group quarters populations, the argument goes, they unfairly provide overrepresentation to places that typically house them (usually more rural areas) when it comes to legislative redistricting.

Several issues arise from this position that I wonder about.

First, on the federal and state level, the flexibility of local officials to choose to either include these special group quarters populations in their counts is ZERO. Federal and state laws specify that these populations (state prisoners) WILL be included in all counts, including those for redistricting purposes for federal and state districts.

Local governments in NY apparently have an OPTION to count them, based on a court case in Jefferson County in the early 1990s. My best understanding of the decision is that the counties may choose whether or not to include them when they draw LOCAL legislative districts. In some counties, such as Oneida County, local laws have been passed addressing this issue - in Oneida County the local law mandates the inclusion of all group quarters populations. Others may choose NOT to use them for redistricting. But in either case, it should ONLY impact local legislative boundaries.

Second, the issue of whether it is appropriate to include prisoners in population counts for redistricting purposes places us, as census professionals, in a precarious position. If we don't include this group quarter, what about others, such as nursing home occupants, mental health facilities, or alcohol treatment centers ? Where do we stop in terms of deciding who IS and ISN'T a TRUE local person ? Many occupants of the above group quarters may actually be placed in those facilities not by there own choosing. So it is more appropriate to count them where they came from or where they are ?

Third, how would we determine where our prisoners are ACTUALLY from ? Is it where they were arrested ? Is it where they lived at the time they were convicted ? Obviously many of those in trouble with the law are very transient. How would anyone confirm a true address which would assign the person in question to a locality ? Is it simply a matter of where they tell you they last lived ?

Fourth, to reassign prison populations back to wherever they came from (assuming that could be done) would deny the rights of the local municipalities that provide support services to our State prisons to adequate representation. Who bears the costs associated with maintaining the water and sewer services, the costs of road maintenance, etc., which service the prisons ? The local municipalities, of course. To deny them the right to count the prisoners would be to deny them the right to population based funds from the federal and state governments which help maintain the areas around the prisons.

Lastly, if the prisons were to fall into disrepair, or start to endanger local communities because they followed unsafe practices, who would bring this issue to task before the state ? If a local water source were to become contaminated and the water at the prison facility were to become undrinkable, who's job would it be to work with the DEC and other water quality personnel to fix the problem ? A representative in some urban district hundreds of miles away, meaning the district from which the prisoner originated ? Not likely...the representative in whose district the prison is located would be much more apt to make an issue of such things. So in some ways, local legislators DO, in fact, represent the interests of the prisoner, as well as the local community.

According to our local Board of Elections, state prisoners have no voting rights. They may, upon release from prison, regain some right to vote. However this is usually something done with assistance from their parole officer.

Local jails have a slightly different angle on democracy. If you are in the local county lockup as a pretrial inmate, you can vote via absentee ballot. Once convicted, regardless of what the conviction is for, you can no longer vote while you are imprisoned. Once released, you are back on the voting rolls, assuming you ever were.

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