Peter Wagner, Executive Director
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—Peter
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Prisoners: North Country Residents?

North Country Public Radio (New York), March 5, 2004. Listen in Real Audio
Transcript by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Reporter David Sommerstein:
Two years ago, St. Lawrence County decided to include its prison population when it drew new legislative districts. That caught the attention of Peter Wagner, a Soros Justice Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Peter Wagner:
Some counties have always excluded them. And some counties have never thought about it, and have just included them and not noticed. However, St. Lawrence is the only county I know of where prisoners were previously not included and they made a decision to change practice.
David Sommerstein:
Wagner will tell a U.S. Census Bureau Symposium today that counties that include prisoners are violating the constitutional principle of "one person - one vote". Here is his argument. The districts are redrawn every decade to contain approximately the same number of people, so each resident has an equal voice. The new districts in St. Lawrence County each have about seventy-five hundred people. But Wagner says in County District 2, for example, where the Ogdensburg and Riverview correctional facilities are, two thousand of those people are behind bars.
Peter Wagner:
The prisoners are an artificial population. They are not really in St. Lawrence. They're there for a few months at a time, at the discretion of the Department of Corrections. They're very much like someone who is passing through. Prisoners are not welcome to even walk into town in Ogdensburg and buy a cup of coffee.
David Sommerstein:
Let alone have a stake in county taxation or policy making. Wagner contrasts St. Lawrence County to neighboring Franklin County. The legislature there voted last month to continue to exclude prisoners. Legislative Chairman Earl LaVoie says their stance was a no-brainer, because one district near Malone has more prisoners than residents. But he adds, prisoners shouldn't be counted among North Country residents on principle.
Earl LaVoie:
Personally, I wouldn't of. They're generally felons. They lose their right to vote. On what basis would you want to include them? I think they should be registered if they want to be, and they get the right to vote back, then they should be in their home town.
David Sommerstein:
The U.S. Census counts prisoners as residing where the prison is located, but New York's Constitution gives counties the option of counting them or not. St. Lawrence County Legislative Vice Chairman Tom Nichols says they made the safest choice.
Tom Nichols:
The County Attorney said: certainly you can start to eliminate groups of individuals, if you so choose. However, in doing so, you put yourself at a greater risk of being challenged successfully in court for having left out, or disenfranchised, different groups of people.
David Sommerstein:
The Board was divided. Republicans wanted to count prisoners. Democrats didn't. Former legislator Jim McFaddin, then a part of the Board's democratic minority, says the reason for counting the inmates was political.
Jim McFaddin:
The majority party could maintain their respective legislative districts and not run against each other. And I didn't think it was of benefit to anyone, the prisoners, the citizens of St. Lawrence County, or anyone else to include them.
David Sommerstein:
Republican legislator Steve Teele, who represents the Ogdensburg district with two prisons, grants he only represents the prisoners on a narrow range of issues. Things like county medical services and roads to and from the prisons. But he says the county is stuck with the U.S. Census numbers.
Steve Teele:
Until the state and federal government does something to change their districts, we would probably defer to what they're doing, and we don't see that happening at the present time.
David Sommerstien:
Prison Policy researcher Peter Wagner is challenging that status quo. If he succeeds, the results could dramatically shrink the North Country census count in 2010, affecting everything from federal services, to state grants, to representation at all levels of government.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein.