Who should count Auburn's prisoners?

2005-02-28T00:00:00Z Who should count Auburn's prisoners?By Amaris Elliott-Engel / The Citizen Auburn Citizen
February 28, 2005 12:00 am  • 

The Auburn Correctional Facility's 1,700 prisoners were counted as part of the city's population of 28,000 in the 2000 U.S. Census, just as if they were active members of the larger community.

And it's a safe bet most of those inmates came from places far away from Auburn.

In New York, 66 percent of state prisoners hail from New York City, but almost 91 percent of the state's prisoners are imprisoned hours away from their family and other community connections in upstate prisons, according to research from the Prison Police Initiative, a Massachusetts research and advocacy group.

But while the boost in population gives rural counties help when it comes to grants and other revenue streams tied to census counts, some prisoner rights advocates argue the current system is a means to tip political power from urban areas, prisoners' hometowns.

They are calling for prisoners to be allowed to list their home addresses when counted in the census, instead of being counted as residents in the counties where they are incarcerated.

"You essentially get this population transfer that enlarges these (upstate) legislative districts," said Marc Mauer, an assistant director at the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice policy advocacy and research group.

In an opinion piece published in the Albany Times-Union last month, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the Clinton Administration Andrew Cuomo argued that the New York Republican party uses its majority in the state Senate to boost or maintain populations in prisons, which are mostly found in rural, typically Republican areas.

Prisoner advocates have pointed to Republican State Sens. Michael Nozzolio and Dale Volker in particular as advocates of tough-on-crime stances that lead to high rates of incarceration. Advocates say that stance is politically convenient.

Advocates also argue the senators' districts would not constitute districts without including the high number of state prisoners.

Nozzolio's district includes eight prisons, and Volker's district, stretching across four counties from Erie County to Ontario County, includes six prisons.

Peter Wagner, of the Prison Policy Initiative, found that seven upstate districts - if they did not include state prisoners - fell short of the required average of 306,072 people to constitute a district.

The districts include those represented by Nozzolio, Volker and State Sen. David Valesky.

"I think it's just a cruel irony … you count them as people from upstate and use them to elect Republican conservatives who continue to incarcerate them," Cuomo said in an interview last week.

Volker has a different problem with the U.S. census. He believes upstate residents were underrepresented by at least 100,000 people through inaccurate census tallying.

"It's definitely not a perfect system, but to insinuate it's gerrymandered, that's ridiculous," Volker spokesman Craig J. Miller said.

"Does Andy Cuomo believe the Assembly's districts are gerrymandered … who often have prisons in their district?"

Nozzolio also disputed Cuomo's claims.

"To see further erosion of upstate political representation based upon this shaky theory will further give power to downstate political bosses," he said. "That's the last thing upstate taxpayers need to see."

Prisoner rights advocates argue that this situation is a latter-day three-fifths clause, similar to when slaves were barred from voting in the Constitution but counted as three-fifths of a person for apportioning Congressional representation.

"We're basically seeing a situation where the three-fifths clause is coming back," said Patricia Allard, associate counsel for the criminal justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice public interest law firm.

The U.S. Census has counted prisoners as residents of the area of their incarceration since the first census in 1790, but the impact of this counting policy did not have wide consequences until mandatory sentencing policies came into effect for drug offenses in the 1970s, leading to massive levels of imprisonment.

Listing prisoners as residents of communities where they have no other local ties leaves them without representation anywhere in the state, advocates said.

"They're essentially represented by legislators who really have no strong incentive to consider the needs and interests for those in prison," Mauer said. "They don't vote for them and they don't have local interaction."

Prisoner advocates said ensuring political representation for prisoners in their home areas is a means to prevent inmates from committing new crimes once they are released.

"A lot of people don't care, but 95 percent of the people who are in prison are going to come out. It's in the community's interest they return to the community in a constructive way," Mauer said. "It's in society's interest that people in prison have positive connections, obligations to the community. People who feel connected to the community are less likely to victimize the community."

But Nozzolio said representing state prisoners incarcerated in his district should not be a priority.

"I really haven't focused on (state prisoners)," Nozzolio said. He said he focuses more on the rights of crime victims and the rights of corrections officers "who have to work under difficult conditions. That's where I am focused."

Staff writer Amaris Elliott-Engel can be reached at 253-5311 ext. 282 or at amaris.elliot-engel@lee.net

Copyright 2015 Auburn Citizen. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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