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Closing prisons is good business

Glens Falls Post-Star

Feb. 23

It’s never good when major upstate employers close, and it’s never bad when reductions in the criminal population allow the state to close prisons.

Those competing truths define the debate over the ongoing closure of prisons in New York, where the number of prisoners (this figure does not include inmates in county jails) has fallen from more than 70,000 in the late 1990s to less than 40,000 last year.

The state has experienced a corresponding drop in crime, a trend that began in the early 1980s, when the state’s violent crime index hit a high of almost 7,000 per 100,000 residents. After four decades of decline, the violent crime index has dipped below 2,000 for the past several years. Last year — 2020 — was a difficult one, with the pandemic and nationwide protests and social upheaval. Still, although some violent crimes, like murders, did increase in New York City and the statewide rate may go up a little, it won’t come close to the highs of 30 and 40 years ago.

Fewer crimes have meant fewer criminals, which has given the state the opportunity to close prisons, saving hundreds of millions of dollars. This hasn’t meant wholesale layoffs — staff levels in the Corrections Department have been adjusted mainly through attrition (not replacing employees who retire or quit).

Although the North Country is home to numerous state prisons, most of the closures have taken place elsewhere. Of 20 prison facilities closed since 1999, three — Camp Gabriels, Chateaugay Correctional and Lyon Mountain Correctional — were in the North Country.

The state has also announced plans to close three more facilities this year — medium security prisons in Gowanda (south of Buffalo) and Watertown, and the Clinton Annex, which is a small part of the maximum security prison in Dannemora. In 2014, Mt. McGregor in Wilton was closed.

Although our state senator, Dan Stec, doesn’t have much to complain about as far as closings in his district, he has been complaining. But what would he and others who have criticized prison closures have the state do? Should it run inefficient half-empty institutions, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars a year?

New York taxpayers need every dollar in savings they can get, and there are many dollars to get in prison operations, which are notoriously expensive.

It’s understandable that the people employed in particular prisons will fight the closing of their workplaces, and so will politicians who represent them. But as a principle, the state should be closing expensive, superfluous facilities.

As a principle, too, the state should be doing everything it can to reduce the size of its inmate population — emphasizing treatment over incarceration for drug users, for example. This benefits everyone — the lawbreakers, the taxpayers and the law-abiding citizens who want addicts to become constructive members of society.

The closure of prisons can be painful for communities that have come to rely on them for jobs. But the closure of prisons is a consequence of lower crime rates, and it saves New York lots of money. From a broader perspective, it’s all good news.

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