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State Senator Betty Little (R-Queensbury)
State Senator Betty Little (R-Queensbury)

Judge's inmate tally decision to shake up North Country legislative districts

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A state Supreme Court judge issued a ruling late Friday that could dramatically reshape North Country political boundaries. The decision affects the way prison inmates are counted as state Assembly and Senate districts are drawn up.

In that process, some communities, including Malone, Ogdensburg and Watertown, will lose a significant portion of their population. Brian Mann has our story.

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Malone Supervisor Howard Maneely says the decision will cost his town a third of its political voice

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Friday afternoon, Judge Eugene Divine dismissed a lawsuit filed by Republican lawmakers – including Senator Betty Little, Senator Patty Ritchie, and Senator Joe Griffo from the North Country.

The suit was aimed at rolling back a law pushed through by Democrats that shifts the way prisoners are counted in the contentious process of political redistricting. 

Under the system drawn up by Democrats, inmates will now be counted in their place of last residence – not in the communities where they are now serving time.

By some estimates, that could shift as many 15,000 residents out of North Country Senate and Assembly districts.  Senator Little from Queensbury, called the ruling a disappointment.

"It's totally political, to take population away from upstate communities where most of the prison facilities are located and adding them to New York City," Little said.

The ruling was also a blow to some local leaders, whose communities rely heavily on inmates to bolster their populations. Howard Maneely is town supervisor of Malone.

"Malone is unique, we're a small town. We have three state prisons here. About one-third of our population are confined to the three correctional facilities. If we take them away from our count, from our population of Malone, we will have hardly any representation at all. Our district will be so big, we'll hardly know our legislators anymore."

Normally, the loss of a few thousand people from each of these three North Country Senate districts might not be such a big deal. But even before this ruling, the North Country’s districts needed to grow substantially – by more than forty thousand people in total – in order to meet the new population guidelines.

Those guidelines require that each Senate district have at least 306,000 people. 

To meet the criteria, each district will now have to expand substantially, pulling in new communities and that could put these Republican districts in conflict with each other and with their neighbors as they each try to grow. 

Senator Little acknowledged on Friday that drawing the new boundaries won’t be easy.

"I might have to go into Saratoga County.  Or if I had to go west, I'd have to go north into St. Lawrence County.  But I'm guessing that those Senators up there, Senator Griffo and Senator Ritchie, they're having the same issue because they also have prison facilities.  So they'll have to grow as well."

One wrinkle is that lawmakers still haven’t figured out how to count inmates in their home communities. 

As of last month, state officials were still struggling to identify the home addresses of at least twenty thousand inmates statewide.

Despite those complications, Judge Devine’s ruling drew praise from prison reform groups, from Democratic lawmakers, and from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. 

In a statement issued on Friday, Schneiderman said the decision ended what he called "prison-based gerrymandering that distorted the democratic process."

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