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Law Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering Stands: Plaintiffs Drop Challenge

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Friday, March 16, 2012

New York, NY – New Yorkers enjoyed a clear victory today, as plaintiffs in the Little v. LATFOR case dropped their challenge of the state law ending prison-based gerrymandering.

The law, known as Part XX, was passed in 2010 to increase fairness in redistricting by counting incarcerated people as residents of their home districts. The previous practice, often called prison-based gerrymandering, gave extra political influence to districts containing prisons, diluting the votes of every resident of a district with no (or fewer) prisons. The law corrects this bias and assures that all communities in New York have equal representation in our government.

A group of plaintiffs led by State Senator Elizabeth Little filed suit seeking to strike down the new legislation. She claimed that legislative districts — including her own, which contains 12,000 incarcerated persons — should be required to include prisoners when redistricting. After the lawsuit was filed, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that a majority of New Yorkers of all regions and parties supported the new law.

In December, New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine ruled that the law was constitutional. The plaintiffs then sought to go directly to the Court of Appeals, bypassing the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division. The Court of Appeals declined to hear plaintiffs’ direct appeal on February 14. Plaintiffs then filed documents with the Appellate Division withdrawing the appeal.

The Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Law & Social Justice, Dēmos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Prison Policy Initiative represented 15 voters from around New York State who intervened in the lawsuit to defend the law. Attorneys for the organizations issued the following joint statement:

“Prison-based gerrymandering in New York unjustly diluted the voice of voters and gave undue political influence to districts with large prisons. By dropping this challenge, opponents acknowledged they were fighting a losing battle. As the redistricting process continues, we are pleased that incarcerated persons will be allocated where they belong — the communities from which they came and to which they overwhelmingly return. This victory helps ensure that all New Yorkers have an equal voice in our democracy.”

About Part XX and Prison-Based Gerrymandering 

Part XX was a major civil rights victory that brought New York’s redistricting practices in line with the New York Constitution’s declaration that a prison is not a residence.

Enhancing the weight of a vote cast in a district with a prison dilutes the weight of a vote cast in all other districts without prisons. According to research by the Prison Policy Initiative conducted after the 2000 Census, prison-based gerrymandering has a particularly negative impact on the voting strength of African-American and Latino communities, because 81 percent of the state’s prison population is African-American or Latino, but 98 percent of the state’s prison cells are in disproportionately white Senate districts.

The most dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering are in upstate counties and cities. For example, half of a council ward in the city of Rome, New York is incarcerated. As a result, the actual residents of that ward wield twice the influence of other city residents. Recognizing the distortions caused by prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, 13 New York counties with large prisons — including four in plaintiff Senator Little’s district — have historically exercised their discretion to remove the prison populations prior to redistricting.

The law brings consistency to redistricting in New York, prohibiting both the state and local governments from giving extra political influence to districts that contain prisons.

The legal documents can be found at the Brennan Center’s web page for Little v. LATFOR.