– Senate Majority Passes Historic Bill –
The New York legislative session that just concluded was historic for the African-American community, it was the culmination of a political infrastructure that began forming two decades ago and is at last bearing fruit. Issues of importance to the African-American community that have been routinely put aside and ignored over the years, were enthusiastically dealt with by legislators elected to address these same concerns a generation ago but who now had power in both houses in Albany and in David Paterson, a governor who shared their frustration and goals.
The latest accomplishment is the legislation ending the practice of inmate-based gerrymandering in New York State and ensuring that incarcerated persons will be counted as residents of their home communities when state and local legislative districts are redrawn in New York next year.
Sponsored by Eric Schneiderman in the Senate and Hakeem Jeffries in the Assembly, the new law is particularly meaningful for Kings County. In an interview with Our Time Press right after the Senate had passed its bill, Assemblyman Jeffries said that Kings County is the largest county in the state with respect to the percentage of individuals who are incarcerated in New York. “We send more individuals into the prison system than any county in New York,” resulting in having the political representation in Kings County being “far less than it otherwise should be.”
Jeffries says that as a result of ending the practice of inmate-based gerrymandering in New York State, there will be increased representation in Brooklyn that would translate into additional political power and resources for the community. He bases this on the combination of an expected increase in the population in Brooklyn, as well as the ability to now count incarcerated individuals as residents of their home communities in Kings County. With this in place, “There is a likelihood that we may secure additional representation in either the Assembly or the Senate.”
What has happened in the past is that because of inmate-based gerrymandering, representation has gone to the rural communities where the prisons are located, giving them a disproportionate share of political power, relative to their actual population.
It is widely known that there are seven upstate Senate districts that would not meet the population requirements, if not for the incarcerated population individuals counted as residents of the district. “The practice is unfair, undemocratic and undermines the fundamental principle of one person one vote.”
Making a Difference
This is just the latest in a series of bills that impact urban areas including reforming the Rocekfeller Drug Laws, ending the Stop-and-Frisk electronic database (but not the technique), reforming the juvenile justice system to provide alternatives to incarceration and holistic help for young people rather than prison care and rent-to-own legislation giving consumers protection from price gouging.
“We were sent to Albany to make a difference and given the change of power in the Senate with John Sampson at the helm and with other members like Velmanette Montgomery and Eric Adams in the majority, the Assembly now has a partner in dealing with issues that benefit communities of color.”
The assemblyman says it also points to the significance of having someone like David Paterson in office, “who is sensitive to the concerns of African-American and Latino communities” and is willing to sign legislation that used to be ignored.
“The other piece of legislation that Our Time Press has covered in a very comprehensive fashion is the MWBE strengthening that we were able to accomplish in the Assembly and the Senate and that Governor Paterson signed into law a few weeks ago. So it’s been an extremely productive legislative session. There is a lot of talk about what does not happen in Albany, and not enough of what does happen, particularly by African-American legislators trying to address issues of concern to the communities we represent.”
Looking forward to the next session, Assemblyman Jeffries is hopeful that the governor will take a look at the housing reform legislation that has passed in the Assembly and is working its way through the Senate to deal with the gentrification of communities of color, primarily in central Brooklyn and in Harlem. “The governor has indicated to us that he recognizes there is a need to reform the rent regulation laws and attempt to bring some balance between the relationship of landlords and tenants.”
Jeffries noted that the housing market over the last decade has spiraled out of control and as a result landlords and developers have engaged in systematic harassment and abuse of rent-stabilized tenants, many of whom are people of color, in order to force them out of their apartments as part of the gentrification process. He says there is a series of rent regulation bills that have already passed the Assembly and “if passed and signed into law by Governor Paterson, will go a long way to dealing with the intense gentrification our communities have been dealing with.”
The assemblyman said that many of his fellow lawmakers saw a parallel between counting incarcerated individuals in the counties where the prisons are located and what took place prior to the Civil War when African-American slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of artificially increasing power the rural South. “The South then went to congress with increased representation based on American slaves not voting and participating in the political process and used that increased political representation to undermine the very interests of those same African-Americans.”
He says that this is what has been taking place in New York State “where rural upstate communities have artificially enhanced their political power largely on the backs of African-American and Latino incarcerated individuals only to then go to the state legislature and fight against the very criminal justice reforms that would benefit the African-American and Latino communities that are disproportionately represented in the correctional system.”
Speaking of the reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Jeffries said there was no justification for maintaining the “antiquated and draconian” laws and sentencing non-violent drug abusers to lengthy prison sentences “other than maintaining a prison industrial complex that enhanced the power of certain communities” that were dependent on the maintenance of a “vibrant” prison system. Reforms such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws took so long to enact because “until we took control of the Senate, individuals in rural upstate communities were committed to a system of maintaining the prison industrial complex with its school-to-prison pipeline. We have set out to break the back of the prison industrial complex. Whatever the morality of the individuals who have fought to maintain the prison industrial complex over the last several decades, they have succumbed to the countervailing force, from people of all colors in New York State, concluding that the right thing to do was to create a fairer, more equitable and more just correctional system.”
Asked if there are other vestiges of slavery still in public policy, Jeffries responded: “I’ve often said that Jim Crow may be dead but his nieces and nephews are alive and well. Slavery may have died with the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, but there are certainly vestiges of slavery that subjugate African-American communities by a loss of political power and the diminution of their ability to succeed economically.”
If electing Barack Obama president was a marker for the advances gained in the Civil Rights Movement, then the New York state legislative session that just concluded demonstrates what was envisioned by the Black Power Movement in the seventies, the wielding of political power to authoritively advance the issues of a previously subjugated people.