January 30, 2013

Editorial: Less reliance on the state


---- — Who would think lower crime and incarceration rates were bad news? Somebody who makes his living incarcerating, naturally.

Generally speaking, you might think that would apply to people in the North Country. But not necessarily.

We have nine state prisons and one federal correctional institution in our three-county region. That’s a lot of employment and a lot of money pumped into the area’s economy.

And that is thanks in large part to the late New York state Sen. Ronald B. Stafford. When prisons needed to be built in the 1970s to provide cells for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s tough — too tough, it turned out — drug laws, many parts of the state spurned the opportunity to have those cells in their communities.

Stafford noted that we’d been home to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora since 1844, making it the third-oldest prison in the state, as well as being the largest. The Dannemora-Saranac area had thrived because of the steady, well-paying jobs it provided and virtually without negative incident.

So Stafford raised his hand when it came time to dole out the new generation of prisons. By 1999, New York was housing 72,584 inmates — its peak population, owing mainly to the Rockefeller anti-drug initiatives.

Now, however, despite a vibrant drug trade continuing to flourish across America and the North Country, prison populations are declining. The crime rate is dropping, which has to be regarded as good news even in a so-called prison community. Everybody is safer these days.

Now, fewer than 55,000 people are imprisoned in New York, and the number is expected to decline 4 percent more in four years.

So where is the good news for northeastern New York?

For one thing, none of the North Country’s prisons is in the budget-cutters’ cross hairs this year. There is no indication that any of the correctional facilities in this area will be lost.

But on an even more optimistic scale, there are solid indications that our economy can become less reliant on the State Department of Corrections.

America’s unemployment rate has been slowly dropping, and the stock markets are approaching their record highs.

Locally, government and chamber officials and developers continue to work to bring new employment opportunities to the region. The state has been making money available to coax companies to establish sites in New York, and the North Country is competing successfully for its share of that money.

The Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corp. took long strides to retool the old Air Force Base into a center for private employment. We can now stand alone, with less and less help from the state.

The state has been a beneficent custodian, but a diverse economy benefits all of us, especially as the state and federal government curtail spending and cut jobs.