Corrections and elections: Why we aren’t a ‘sexy' political topic

Ongoing protection of the public is expensive in an economy where cash is king and, after election day, challenges for the winners are king-sized

In order to maintain a representative form of government, public election cycles are a messy and necessary price Americans pay for living in a republic. Without this arduous process, outcomes could be very different and ultimately impact all aspects of social, educational, economic and civic experiences enjoyed every day in the United States.

While it has been said the first function of government is public safety, it’s the topic most national and state political candidates choose to avoid, especially when the discussion turns to prisons and jails. Corrections officials and staff want to hear candidates tackle these issues, but there are reasons campaign dialogue rarely navigates into these waters.

Ongoing protection of the public is expensive in an economy where cash is king and, after election day, challenges for the winners are king-sized. There are several hard realities about corrections and governing agencies no candidate can spin in order to make a campaign message that appeals to voters.

For example, half of all offenders released from prison will reoffend and return. The average cost per day for housing inmates continues to climb, which is further complicated by the national aging of prison populations and ongoing, acute health care needs.

While everyone agrees costs can be reduced by supervising offenders in community-based settings, few candidates are willing to offer up their home districts for additional community beds. Voters will never hear a candidate shout from the rooftops, "What we need are more half-way houses in my district!"

Likewise, state and federal laws regulating conditions of confinement are becoming increasingly demanding, most of the time evolving as unfunded mandates, where implementation costs must be absorbed by local budgets.

Candidates are rarely heard inviting sex offender populations to reside in their districts, and, when looking at possible capital construction budget projects, they know schools, hospitals, roads and bridges are much more palatable than finding creative ways to pay for building a new prison or jail.

Currently, the greatest costs for running corrections agencies are in salaries and benefits. Sadly, while correctional line staff place themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis, they remain among the lowest-paid civil servants in America. 

Occasionally, a related discussion topic like the death penalty question winds its way into town hall forums or television interviews. However, the candidate’s position on this subject rarely becomes a deal-breaker at the ballot box.

The challenge of managing the mentally ill population and preparing this group for community re-entry is usually on no one’s radar screen until a critical incident forces dialogue.

Half-way houses, education of inmate populations, health care in jails and prisons and other related issues are just not sexy political topics. In fact, there are certain functions of government the voting public merely takes for granted, and they expect these functions to work.

Public opinion and voting behavior are seldom linked to corrections-based issues; that means political candidates are hesitant to risk time or money on topics with very little return on their investment. 

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