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Change in inmate counting is only a start

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The redistricting now convulsing New York state politics exposes something obvious and unfair about the state's prison system.

Recent legislation changed the way state prisoners are counted in the Census. Previously, they were counted in the communities where their prisons were located, but now they are being counted where they lived before being sent to prison.

So a prisoner from Brooklyn held in Great Meadow in 2010 is now being counted among the population of Brooklyn, not Washington County.

The change makes sense. Most prisoners do not move, in any real sense, to the communities that host prisons. Most inmates stay in state prisons only two or three years, and when they're released, they rarely settle down where they were incarcerated. They go home.

The change will mean districts like state Senator Betty Little's will have to encompass even bigger geographic areas, to include enough resident human beings. People can be hard to find in places like Franklin County, which explains why, with the population of Malone's three state prisons (among others) subtracted from the count, Little's district will have to swell.

But the upstate prisons-downstate prisoners arrangement speaks of more than an inequity in population counts used to set legislative districts.

Far too many of our young urban men in New York spend often-brief sojourns in rural prisons that stigmatize them for the rest of their lives, exposing them to legal discrimination and relegating them to a lower class existence.

Laws may be colorblind, but the criminal justice system is not, unfortunately. White and black people use illegal drugs at about the same rates, for example, but a much higher percentage of black people than white are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug crimes. Most of these people are young men, and once convicted, their road to a constructive, satisfying life is particularly steep.

In prison, they are numbers, little more. So many inmates per prison, so many inmates per correction officer, so many inmates per upstate job.

Prisoners bear responsibility for their actions and the only way for an individual to transcend his incarceration is to first take responsibility for where he has ended up.

But step back and consider all the black and brown young men passing through our state prisons on their way to lives of severely curtailed opportunities. It's wrong on its face.

They're being counted where they should be now, but they still don't count as much as they should.

Will Doolittle is projects editor of The Post-Star. He may be reached at will@poststar.com and followed on Twitter at @trafficstatic.

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