Jude Seymour
Watertown Daily Times
August 6, 2010

New York soon will count its prisoners in their hometowns for the purpose of redrawing its political boundary lines, a sea change in philosophy that could create less upstate representation but should not affect all-important aid.

State lawmakers historically have used decennial U.S. Census Bureau data, which count prisoners as residents of the county in which they are incarcerated, to reapportion Senate and Assembly districts.

Senators narrowly passed, along party lines, a budget revenue bill Tuesday that included the change. New York soon will become one of three states to use the different counting system.

Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, who had voiced opposition to the population provision when it was a stand-alone bill, joined his Democratic colleagues in voting for the budget revenue bill. All Republicans opposed it.

The Cape Vincent resident said the provision, as written, alleviated his main concern: that the state would use its new population counts instead of Census data to determine state and federal aid. Municipalities need the aid, he has argued, because state prisons use local electricity, water, sewer, courts and hospitals.

Jessica Bassett, a spokeswoman for Gov. David A. Paterson, confirmed that the bill changing how prisoners are counted "would have no impact" on state and federal funding, such as the Aid to Municipalities that Ogdensburg, a city with a state prison, receives.

"The bill only affects how population is counted for purposes of redistricting," she said.

One of Sen. Joseph A. Griffo's main objections was that removing prisons from upstate Senate districts would result in those districts encompassing more area, creating the potential for more districts being configured downstate than before.

"The real message here is that the people who want to change the system want to use it as a way to reduce the ability of upstate New York to stand up and resist changes that are being pushed down our throats by downstate politicians," he said.

Sen. Elizabeth O'C. Little, a Queensbury Republican whose district includes about 13,000 prisoners, agreed with her colleague.

"This is a win for New York City," she said. "It's a loss for upstate. And it's totally political."

Mr. Aubertine was not as concerned, saying that Senate districts could adapt to some population loss because of the formula that is used. In that formula, the state's population is divided into 62 equal districts, and each district's population has to be within 5 percent of that number.

Each Senate district represents about 306,072 residents. Senate Republicans who controlled the majority after the 2000 Census protected their party members by keeping all upstate seats smaller than average.

The phenomenon is opposite in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, where downstate districts with Democratic incumbents contain less population than their upstate counterparts.

Mr. Aubertine has sponsored a bill to use a nonpartisan redistricting process after the 2010 census. He said he'd like to put political gerrymandering "to rest," although he acknowledged that "more and more people are paying less and less attention to these arbitrary lines on the map" when they need help.

Opponents of the previous counting practice argued that it gave unfair political clout to upstate communities with prisons, which are usually rural and white, and diluted the voice of downstate African-American and Latino communities.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund estimates that 98 percent of the state's prison cells are in "disproportionately white" Senate districts. Seventy percent of the cells, the group reported, are filled by African-Americans and Latinos.

Sen. Eric T. Schneiderman, the Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the original bill, told WNYC in February that about half of the state's 58,000 prisoners committed their crime in New York City.

But Mr. Griffo, R-Rome, said it was "ludicrous and just plain wrong" for an imprisoned person's home community to claim him.

"Inmates in state prison for five, 10 or 20 years are not heading back to their home communities any time soon," he said in a news release. "They are - for better or worse - residents of the area in which their prison is located."

Mrs. Little agreed, saying it didn't make sense to give more representation to communities where prisoners may not return.

But the NAACP said the average length of incarceration is less than three years, although the Census count remains in effect for a decade.

Mr. Griffo also questioned whether prisoners' home addresses would be accurate. Getting accurate data, he said, may require interviewing prisoners.

The state Board of Elections is responsible for obtaining prisoners' residential data, which the bill's drafters said carried "minimal administrative costs." A board spokesman could not be reached Thursday for a cost estimate.

Mrs. Little said the price would be considerable.

"I can't imagine what time and what it's going to cost in employee wages to figure out where the inmate is located and if that home is still available to them," she said.