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Albany Judge Upholds Law Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering

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12/02/11

Victory for Civil Rights, Fair Representation Removes Any Doubt That Redistricting Body Can Proceed Under New Law


Albany, NY - New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine today upheld New York’s law ending prison-based gerrymandering in the Little v. LATFOR lawsuit.  The case was argued on behalf of intervenors by Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Myrna Perez, Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center.  Judge Devine's decision squarely rejects the plaintiffs’ claim that the New York law violated various provisions of the New York State Constitution.
 
Attorneys for the fifteen voters from around New York State who joined the suit as intervenor-defendants issued the following joint statement:
 
By eliminating the political distortion caused by prison-based gerrymandering, the new law upheld by today’s decision will ensure fairer representation for all New Yorkers, starting with this year’s redistricting.
 
Judge Devine’s decision affirms what we have known from the beginning: the law ending prison-based gerrymandering advances fairness in redistricting and is in complete agreement with New York’s state constitution. Now that Justice Devine has made his decision, we look forward to seeing LATFOR implement the new law in the coming months.
 
The organizations representing the fifteen voters in court were 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. In today's ruling rejecting Plaintiffs' legal challenge, the Court repeatedly cited the organizations' arguments explaining the policies and legal precedent supporting New York’s law.
 
On Aug. 4, Judge Devine granted the fifteen voters permission to intervene and defend the law.  The defendants in the lawsuit were government bodies charged with carrying out the new law: the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). The New York State Attorney General’s office is representing DOCCS.
 
The new law, known as “Part XX,” requires that incarcerated persons be allocated to their home communities for state and local redistricting and reapportionment but does not affect funding distributions.  This tracks with the New York State Constitution’s explicit provision that incarceration does not change one’s residence.
 
New York State Senator Elizabeth Little and a group of co-plaintiffs sought to restore New York’s former practice, which artificially inflated the voting strength of select communities at the expense of all others by allocating incarcerated persons to the districts where prisons are located, rather than to their home addresses.
 
A recent Quinnipiac University poll reported that public opinion is against prison-based gerrymandering, with a majority of New York State voters agreeing that “prison inmates should be counted as residents of their home districts, not of where they're imprisoned.” The poll found that majorities of voters from both parties, and majorities of both upstate and downstate voters, favored “counting inmates in their homes, not their prisons.”
 
About Prison-Based Gerrymandering
 
There are dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering 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 new law brings consistency to redistricting in New York, prohibiting the state and all local governments from giving extra political influence to districts that contain prisons. Sen. Little’s lawsuit sought to have the new legislation struck down, the effect of which would require legislative districts - including her own, which contains 12,000 incarcerated persons - to include prisons when redistricting, to the detriment of all other districts without prisons.
 
Returning to this practice would have unfairly inflated districts containing prisons to the detriment of everyone else and would have violated the New York State Constitution. In addition, many areas containing large minority communities have been disproportionately affected by this practice, effectively diluting the votes of minority communities. The enactment of Part XX was considered a major civil rights achievement for New York State.