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Judge Allows Civil Rights Organizations to Defend Law Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Albany, NY – A New York Supreme Court judge has cleared the way for civil rights organizations representing fifteen voters from across New York State to join the Attorney General in defending New York’s law ending “prison-based gerrymandering,” a practice that had distorted representation across New York State.

Judge Eugene Devine on Aug. 4 granted fifteen urban and rural voters from across New York State permission to intervene in Little v. LATFOR, a lawsuit challenging the law. The organizations representing these voters in court are 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. These groups are also representing three organizations that Judge Devine declined to grant intervenor status.

The new law, known as “Part XX,” requires that incarcerated persons be allocated to their home communities for redistricting and reapportionment. This tracks with the New York State Constitution’s explicit provision that incarceration does not change one’s residence. The legislation applies to state and local legislative redistricting, and would not affect federal funding distributions.

New York State Senator Elizabeth Little and a group of co-plaintiffs are seeking to restore the old policy, which inflated the voting weight of a few communities at the expense of many others by allocating incarcerated persons to the districts where prisons were located, rather than to their home addresses. This group benefitted from the prior policy.

The intervenor-defendants allowed in by Judge Devine’s decision will represent the interests of voters from across the state. The original named 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, known as LATFOR, and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. By permitting the intervenor-defendants to join the suit, Judge Devine is allowing the interests of voters who will be disenfranchised by prison-based gerrymandering statewide to be represented in court as the case proceeds.

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, 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 – most notably her own, which contains 12,000 incarcerated persons – to include prison populations in their apportionment counts, 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.