A recent court decision concerning where state prison inmates will be counted during legislative redistricting will benefit downstate communities over upstate, some legislators say.
The Dec. 1 decision by state Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine of Albany could lead to the drawing of new district lines that Republicans say might make it easier for Democrats to undermine the state Senate’s narrow 32-30 GOP majority.
Upstate Republican senators had challenged the 2010 law that declared prisoners would be counted as residents of their old home communities, rather than as living at their prison addresses.
“It was done when there was Democratic leadership in the Senate, and the Senate and Assembly leaders and the governor were all from New York City,” said state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, one of the legislators who brought the suit.
“It’s just to get more influence for the city over upstate, in my opinion,” she said. Judge Devine’s decision will definitely be appealed, Little said Thursday, after talking to the eight other senators involved in the lawsuit.
Assemblyman Tony Jordan, R-Jackson, said the law worsens the situation created by the overall decline of New York’s upstate population. “Anything that diminishes the county for upstate makes the hill harder to climb,” he said. Jordan’s Assembly district in Washington and Saratoga counties includes the Great Meadow and Mt. McGregor state prisons, with a total of 2,500 inmates.
Having the legislative leaders hailing from downstate makes it harder to get through legislation to help farmers and address other upstate issues, he said. “It’s just a lack of caring for and understanding about upstate,” he said. “It’s just natural. You care about where you come from.”
But backers of the change say it’s not about politics: They call the past practice “prison-gerrymandering” — using the traditional pejorative term for oddly designed legislative districts to condemn the counting of prisoners as rural upstaters.
The judge’s decision “is a victory for fundamental fairness and equal representation,” said state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a former Manhattan state senator who defended the law in court.
Devine’s decision came as a legislative commission is working on drawing new Assembly and Senate district lines based on the 2010 census numbers. Its recommendations are due in early 2012 for use in next fall’s elections. It was already designing the new districts based on law the court upheld.
Because her Senate district is so rural, Little already has the geographically largest district in the state. There are 11,000 prisoners living in it. If they aren’t counted, her district would have to get even larger — and she said it’s already bigger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. “I will have to go either south or west,” Little said.
The previous policy gave a population boost — and thus a little more state and federal representation — to small, rural communities like Dannemora, Fort Ann and Attica that have large state prisons.
In the northern Adirondacks, in particular, little communities have sought for decades to host state prisons — to the point where the Adirondacks have sometimes been termed “the Siberia of New York” — because they provided steady year-round jobs for residents. But everyone agrees the inmates housed in those prisons are disproportionately from New York City and other urban areas.
There are about 58,000 inmates in the state prison system. The prisoners can’t vote, but they need to be counted somewhere during the redistricting process.
In their lawsuit, the Republicans called the change approved by the Legislature in 2010 a “power play” by Democrats seeking to “usurp the strength of the Republican party, its voters and its representatives.”
Little said redistricting has always been done using federal census figures, and the census counts prisoners where they are then living.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to count people where they aren’t, and may not have lived in years, and may never live again,” Little said. “Many of the prisoners in my district are serving long sentences.”
In his decision, Devine found there are no grounds for overturning the law, since inmates are routinely moved within the prison system, and nothing ties particular inmates permanently to the communities in which they are incarcerated.
“There is nothing in the record to indicate that such inmates have any actual permanency in these locations or have an intent to remain,” Devine wrote.
Under the 2010 census figures, the state has 19.4 million residents, so Senate districts must have about 313,000 residents, and Assembly districts must have about 130,000.
The decision will mean somewhat bigger legislative districts in the northern part of the state where there are prisons, and perhaps geographically smaller districts downstate, where the inmates would be listed as residents.
Little’s Senate district stretches from Easton in Washington County north more than 150 miles to the Canadian border, and includes most of the Adirondack Park.
Wells Town Supervisor Brian Towers, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, said the decision could influence the upstate/downstate power balance, but he doesn’t see it having much of an impact within the Adirondack Park itself.
“Obviously it appears it will have a significant impact on some of the legislative districts,” he said.
Any practical effect from the change is more likely to be felt in the Senate than the Assembly.
In the 150-member Assembly, Democrats already have a 98-51 advantage over the Republicans. About 100 Assembly districts represent Long Island, New York City or communities south of the Westchester-Orange County line. The rest of the districts are farther upstate.
The Senate, on the other hand, currently has the 32-30 Republican majority. Democrats held a 31-member majority for much of the 2009-2010 legislative session.
Thirty-eight of the 62 Senate seats are geographically located downstate, but a group of nine Republican senators elected from Long Island — including Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos — provide an exception to the general downstate-Democratic, upstate-Republican political split.
The redistricting currently being done by the legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment faces the possibility of a veto by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has wanted an independent commission to draw the new district lines.
A face-off between the Legislature and Cuomo over redistricting could end up in court, raising questions about whether new lines would be ready in time for the 2012 fall elections.
Meanwhile, a group of community leaders last month filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, asking that a federal judge take over and supervise the redistricting process.