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Inmates to be excluded from North Country districts

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A measure to change where prison inmates are counted when drawing political districts was slipped into the budget bills passed Tuesday night. Beginning with redistricting based on 2010 census data, inmates will be counted at their home addresses, not at the prison where they're locked up. Supporters called the change a victory for equal representation. But the North Country stands to lose more political clout. David Sommerstein reports.

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Currently more than 14,000 inmates are locked up in prisons scattered across the North Country. Many are black and Latino from New York City. None are allowed to vote. Yet they're counted in the census as residents of the rural, mostly white towns where the prisons sit.   

Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative says that skews the constitutional principle of 'one person, one vote.' "It sounds really obscure, but this quirk in the census actually changes how our democracy works and it changes some of the legislative decisions that are made," Wagner said.

Under legislation the Senate passed Tuesday night, the quirk will be ironed out. Prisoners will be counted at their home addresses when state and county legislative districts are redrawn based on 2010 census data.

In a press release, the bill's sponsor, Senator Eric Schneidermann of Manhattan, said "we made history in New York." He said so-called prison-based gerrymandering is "a distortion of the democratic process."

When boundaries are redrawn, districts in Northern New York will have to get bigger to encompass more constituents. The region may end up losing a district altogether.

The North Country's entire delegation to Albany opposed the bill. State Senator Darrel Aubertine says he's still not a proponent. But he says it won't affect funding derived from the census. "I was assured and feel confident that it will have no impact on state or federal aid. It was just for redistricting. Y'know, roughly in the 48th Senate district, we've got ballpark 3000 or so inmates. We've got roughly 300,000 constituents, so you're looking at roughly 1%. It really has little impact,"said Aubertine.

It could have a bigger impact on Republican Betty Little's 45th Senate district, where some 11,000 inmates reside at 12 prisons. But the biggest impact will be felt in two North Country counties. St. Lawrence and Jefferson are the only ones in the region that included inmates when drawing up county districts ten years ago.

In fact, St. Lawrence County actually included inmates after having excluded them in 1990. It was a controversial move to preserve two solidly Republican districts in Gouverneur and Ogdensburg that are 14% and 25% inmates, respectively. A bitter feud over a petition drive to halt change eventually landed in court.

"I don't remember all the intricacies there, signatures and yadda yadda," said Democrat Tedra Cobb. She wrapped up her second term on St. Lawrence County's legislature and is not running for another. She says leaving inmates out of the county districts is simple democracy."If each person who is elected is representing the same numbers of people, then they should be representing the same numbers of people who are able to participate in the process, in elections, in the public dialogue, all of those kinds of things. Inmates are not part of that," Cobb said.

Republican Dave Forsythe disagrees. The Assembly candidate currently represents the Ogdensburg district that's 25% inmates. "To me, it's just another New York City power grab. Y'know, are they going to go after college students next?  That'd be my next question. Y'know, those prisoners utilize a lot of our services, our water, they're a burden on our septic system, and I think they should be counted in the district where they reside," said Forsythe.

The bill to count inmates at their home addresses for redistricting now goes to Governor Paterson's desk for his signature. As a State Senator from Harlem, he was a big supporter of the measure.

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