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Chained at the ankle

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New York’s announcement that it would close four more prisons across the state, including Chateauguay in Franklin County, should remind the north country of the precarious nature of one of our largest sources of employment.

Northern New York is home to eight state prisons. The prisons from Malone to Watertown — including facilities in Ogdensburg, Gouverneur and Cape Vincent — provide significant quality jobs that support Northern New York families.

These new closures mean the state will have shuttered 13 prisons since 2011, reflecting the reduction in the number of prisoners in the system. The inmate population has dropped to about 54,600 after peaking in 1999 at 72,584 as a result of elimination of the mandatory Rockefeller-era drug laws sentences and a drop in state crime rates over the past 10 years.

As the upstate economy waned over the last 20 years, state investment in prisons was welcomed for the jobs the system provided. But at the same time came the recognition that the stiff sentences on drug users were counterproductive.

Providing judges more flexibility in sentencing those guilty of drug law violations resulted in more successful outcomes by reducing recidivism and positively changing the pattern of many lives. And the streets are safer, especially in New York City where the coordinated stop-and-frisk regime of the police department is said to have played a role in reducing street crime and the homicide rate.

Couple the improved sentencing rules with a lower crime rate and New York benefits from having to spend less to punish people. All taxpayers relish that prospect until they realize that a prison closure may mean that a family member or a neighbor who will lose the job upon which a family depends.

The warning that the latest round of closures brings to the communities that host state prisons is not about organizing to maintain the status quo for the community but instead dealing with the challenge of finding means to provide economic growth that will smooth the way if another prison is closed. We are witnessing plenty of transformations in our economy.

Medical care is changing rapidly, and the justification for multiple small hospitals diminishes with each improvement in the method of delivering health care. We are watching the climax of the transformation of the delivery of psychiatric care in state hospitals to a community care model. State University colleges face plans for consolidation with neighboring institutions.

Unfortunately, upstate New York’s economy is over-reliant on these types of government services. Communities across the north country need to band together to invest in leadership that will focus attention on encouraging private sector investment.

The agenda for tomorrow is not a reprise of yesterday. It requires thoughtful change, flexibility and a posture that enhances risk-taking.

We still have time to shift from our dependence on government but only if we assemble leaders willing to devote energy to investment, education and self-reliance. Every business and nonprofit has a stake in loosening the reins of state dominance over our economy.

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