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New York Takes Swing at Prison Gerrymandering

New York will likely be third state to start counting prisoners as coming from their hometowns, and not where their cell is located.

Earlier this summer, Miller-McCune highlighted a report from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on the controversial practice of "prison-based gerrymandering." The census accounting trick — by which prisoners are tallied in the districts where they are incarcerated, not where they permanently reside — dilutes the voting power of minority communities, the Legal Defense Fund argued.

The Census Bureau this year is trying for the first time to make it easier for states to adjust how they factor prison populations into redistricting. And now a third state intends to change the practice.

The New York state Legislature this week passed a law requiring inmates to be counted as residents of their home communities when political districts are redrawn. The 2010 census counted inmates at their prison locations, but the Census Bureau is releasing expedited prisoner data in time for states to identify those populations and account for them elsewhere when redistricting (by, in many cases, cross-referencing census data with home addresses on local prisoner rolls).

The Prison Policy Initiative, which has drawn attention to the problem nationwide, hopes that by the next census, in 2020, federal officials will end the practice all together by changing how the bureau counts inmates.

In the meantime, New York follows Maryland and Delaware in addressing the problem locally. Governors in New York and Delaware still must sign the bills into law (and are expected to do so), while Maryland's law went into effect in April.

New York provided some of the most egregious examples of prison-based gerrymandering cited in the Legal Defense Fund report.

"In New York, 66 percent of the state's prisoners come from New York City, but 91 percent of them are incarcerated upstate, a more rural and less populated region," the study concluded. "In the 2000 Census, over 43,000 New York City residents were counted as members of upstate communities because of prison-based gerrymandering.

"Without these prison populations, seven of New York's State Senate districts from the 2000 redistricting cycle would not meet the minimum population requirements under federal law and would have to be redrawn, which would in turn change district lines across the state."