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Under state law, prisoners are not residents of these Upstate counties.

Senators challenge inmate count

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The North Country State Senators are suing to block a new law for redistricting this year. It would count prison inmates in the districts where their home residence is, not in the North Country town where they're held. David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Republicans Betty Little, Patty Ritchie, and Joe Griffo all have multiple prisons in their districts.  And they’re among eight Senators who are challenging the new law in court.

Their lawsuit argues New York’s constitution requires inmates to be counted where they are at the time of the census – in prison.  And the lawmakers have long argued that inmates use water, sewer, and roads in the prison towns – and so they should be counted there. 

But the state does pay for those services.  And starting this year, the U.S. Census Bureau has actually promised to separate out inmate numbers - just for the sake of drawing new political districts - because many states have asked it to.  The inmates would still be counted where they’re imprisoned for census-derived federal funding.  Maryland and Delaware have also recently decided to count inmates at their last known address.

Supporters of the new law say inmates play no role in the towns where they’re imprisoned. 

They’re not residents.  We draw districts so that each district contains the same number of people.

Peter Wagner directs the Prison Policy Institute.  He says inmates have long been counted in rural districts that have little in common with their mostly urban roots.  That practice, he says, artificially inflates the influence of districts with prisons.

Wagner argues the state constitution is on his side.

Under state law, prisoners are not residents of these Upstate counties.  And what the bill to end prison-based gerrymandering does is it puts the data that’s used to draw New York State’s districts in line with common sense and with the state constitution.

Wagner points to counties like Essex, in Betty Little’s district.  Essex decided several years ago to exclude prisoners from county districts.

At issue is power and potentially a Senate seat.  Some of these districts may have to get bigger, or be merged with another, due to population loss.

The three Senators declined to comment due to pending litigation.  The attorney representing them wasn’t available for this story.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein.

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