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Law on prisoner count in court

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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North country lawmakers past and present are involved in a court challenge that's helping entangle the state's process of redrawing its political boundaries.


At issue is where to count prisoners: Are they residents of the prison where they're incarcerated, or at their last known address?


State law, passed in 2010, says the latter, but Ogdensburg Mayor William D. Nelson is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging that.


"The resources of our communities are utilized to support those facilities," said Mr. Nelson, whose city includes two correctional facilities — Ogdensburg Correctional Facility and Riverview Correctional Facility, across the street.


Robert D. Ferris, a Jefferson County legislator who represents Watertown Correctional Facility, also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed in April.


Mr. Ferris noted that Fort Drum's population also is counted in a fellow legislator's district, despite the fact that very few soldiers vote in the county's elections.


"It's not by how many people vote," he said. "People that aren't registered to vote, you have to make sure there are facilities for them."


The lawsuit also includes a group of state Senate Republicans, including Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.


Those defending the law that counts prisoners at their home address instead of their prisons include Tedra L. Cobb, a former St. Lawrence County legislator who was a vocal proponent of removing prisoners from counting in the county's districts.


She disagreed with Mr. Nelson's assessment that they take a toll on the community.


"The reality is, inmates are not part of our community in any way," she said — they don't pay taxes, vote or shop for groceries.


As the two sides fight, the state is going about its business preparing for the new boundaries and for now, setting aside the issue of where to count prisoners.


"If they're drawing districts without doing the adjustment that's required by the law, that would seem to be a problem," said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Institute, a Massachusetts-based organization that is helping defend the 2010 law.


Mr. Wagner, an attorney, argues that the state's constitution requires prisoners to be counted where they resided before being incarcerated. Opponents point to a different part of the constitution, but offer similar arguments, to bolster their views.


Meanwhile, the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, a joint committee of the state Senate and Assembly, is meeting despite a threat from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to veto what it produces. Mr. Cuomo has said he'll veto non-independently drawn lines.


If the defendants prevail in their lawsuit and prisoners no longer are counted as part of state Senate or Assembly districts, north country lawmakers will have to make up for a population loss in their districts, which would have to grow geographically as a result.


Senators will need about 312,000 residents in their districts. Assembly districts will need about 130,000. The following are the prison populations, compared with the general population, of state legislators, according to the 2010 Census:


n Mrs. Ritchie, 48th Senate District: 294,748, with 3,576 prisoners.


n Mr. Griffo, 47th Senate District: 292,134, with 2,608 prisoners.


n Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, 122nd Assembly District: 131,778, with 981 prisoners.


n Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, 118th Assembly District: 129,137, with 2,595 prisoners.

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