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Civil Rights Groups to Defend Law Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering in Supreme Court Hearing

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10/03/11

Albany, NY – Tomorrow, attorneys from New York’s leading civil rights and social justice organizations will present oral argument in Little v. LATFOR in defense of the State’s law ending prison-based gerrymandering.

Dale Ho of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center will present oral argument  on behalf of fifteen intervenor voters, also represented by  the Center for Law & Social Justice, Dēmos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF,  the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Prison Policy Initiative represent the intervenors.

The hearing will take place at 10 am, Tuesday, Oct. 4

Albany County Courthouse |16 Eagle Street, Albany, NY 12207

On August  4th, Judge Devine granted the fifteen voters from across New York State permission to intervene in the lawsuit to defend the law.  The defendants in the lawsuit are 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 redistricting and reapportionment, but does not affect funding distributions.  This tracks 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 are seeking 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. 

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Separate from the lawsuit, on Aug. 4, the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment announced that it would comply with the law. This was a dramatic change for LATFOR, whose co-chair, Senator Nozzolio, represents a district that includes several large prisons. LATFOR had previously been implying that it was not going to implement the law.

This pledge to follow the law came after a flurry of public criticism prompted by the seven civil rights organizations representing the intervenors. On July 27, the seven civil rights organizations representing the intervenors wrote to LATFOR, explaining that LATFOR must comply with the law. LATFOR had also received intense criticism from editorial boards around the state, including the Albany Times Union, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and the New York Times.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll reported that public opinion is decidedly against prison-based gerrymandering, with a majority of New York State believing that  “prison inmates should be counted as residents of their home districts, not of where they’re imprisoned.” The poll found that a majority of  voters from both parties, and from 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, giving the residents of that ward twice the influence of other city residents. Recognizing the distorting effect of prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, thirteen 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 seeks 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 unfairly inflate districts containing prisons at others’ expense, and violate 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.