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Law Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering Stands

Plaintiffs in the Little v. LATFOR case dropped their challenge of the state law ending prison-based gerrymandering.

March 16, 2012

New York­ers enjoyed a clear victory today, as plaintiffs in the Little v. LATFOR case dropped their chal­lenge of the state law ending prison-based gerry­man­der­ing.

The law, known as Part XX, was passed in 2010 to increase fair­ness in redis­trict­ing by count­ing incar­cer­ated people as resid­ents of their home districts. The previ­ous prac­tice, often called prison-based gerry­man­der­ing, gave extra polit­ical influ­ence to districts contain­ing pris­ons, dilut­ing the votes of every resid­ent of a district with no (or fewer) pris­ons. The law corrects this bias and assures that all communit­ies in New York have equal repres­ent­a­tion in our govern­ment.

A group of plaintiffs led by State Senator Eliza­beth Little filed suit seek­ing to strike down the new legis­la­tion. She claimed that legis­lat­ive districts — includ­ing her own, which contains 12,000 incar­cer­ated persons — should be required to include pris­on­ers when redis­trict­ing. After the lawsuit was filed, a Quin­nipiac Univer­sity poll showed that a major­ity of New York­ers of all regions and parties suppor­ted the new law.

In Decem­ber, New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine ruled that the law was consti­tu­tional. The plaintiffs then sought to go directly to the Court of Appeals, bypassing the Supreme Court’s Appel­late Divi­sion. The Court of Appeals declined to hear plaintiffs’ direct appeal on Febru­ary 14. Plaintiffs then filed docu­ments with the Appel­late Divi­sion with­draw­ing the appeal.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice, the Center for Law & Social Justice, Dēmos, Latino­Justice PRLDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educa­tion Fund, the New York Civil Liber­ties Union, and the Prison Policy Initi­at­ive repres­en­ted 15 voters from around New York State who inter­vened in the lawsuit to defend the law. Attor­neys for the organ­iz­a­tions issued the follow­ing joint state­ment:

“Prison-based gerry­man­der­ing in New York unjustly diluted the voice of voters and gave undue polit­ical influ­ence to districts with large pris­ons. By drop­ping this chal­lenge, oppon­ents acknow­ledged they were fight­ing a losing battle. As the redis­trict­ing process contin­ues, we are pleased that incar­cer­ated persons will be alloc­ated where they belong — the communit­ies from which they came and to which they over­whelm­ingly return. This victory helps ensure that all New York­ers have an equal voice in our demo­cracy.”

About Part XX and Prison-Based Gerry­man­der­ing 

Part XX was a major civil rights victory that brought New York’s redis­trict­ing prac­tices in line with the New York Consti­tu­tion’s declar­a­tion that a prison is not a resid­ence.

Enhan­cing the weight of a vote cast in a district with a prison dilutes the weight of a vote cast in all other districts without pris­ons. Accord­ing to research by the Prison Policy Initi­at­ive conduc­ted after the 2000 Census, prison-based gerry­man­der­ing has a partic­u­larly negat­ive impact on the voting strength of African-Amer­ican and Latino communit­ies, because 81 percent of the state’s prison popu­la­tion is African-Amer­ican or Latino, but 98 percent of the state’s prison cells are in dispro­por­tion­ately white Senate districts.

The most dramatic examples of prison-based gerry­man­der­ing are in upstate counties and cities. For example, half of a coun­cil ward in the city of Rome, New York is incar­cer­ated. As a result, the actual resid­ents of that ward wield twice the influ­ence of other city resid­ents. Recog­niz­ing the distor­tions caused by prison-based gerry­man­der­ing at the local level, 13 New York counties with large pris­ons — includ­ing four in plaintiff Senator Little’s district — have histor­ic­ally exer­cised their discre­tion to remove the prison popu­la­tions prior to redis­trict­ing.

The law brings consist­ency to redis­trict­ing in New York, prohib­it­ing both the state and local govern­ments from giving extra polit­ical influ­ence to districts that contain pris­ons.

The legal docu­ments can be found at the Bren­nan Center’s web page for Little v. LATFOR.

For more inform­a­tion, please contact:

Bren­nan Center for Justice:  Madeline Fried­man, (646) 292–8357, madeline.fried­

Center for Law & Social Justice:  April Silver, (718) 756–8501, pr@akila­work­

Demos:  Anna Pycior, (212) 389–1408, apycior@­

Latino­Justice:  John Garcia, (212) 739–7581, jgar­cia@lat­ino­

NAACP Legal Defense Fund:  Mel Gagarin, (212) 965–2783, mgagar­in@n­

NYCLU:   Michael Cummings, (212) 607–3300 x368, mcum­ming­s@­

Prison Policy Initi­at­ive:  Peter Wagner, (413) 527–0845,pwag­n­er­@­pris­on­