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Promises to keep
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 11/03/2008

Candidates Can’t you just taste it? Election Day is a mere thirteen days away. All of the debates, Veepstakes, baby-kissing, and endorsement fishing aside, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain are about to face the biggest moment of their strikingly different lives. And the campaigns are bracing for what promises to be a brutally fast-paced and sleepless race to the finish.

It might be two-weeks of crunch time for Democrats and Republicans, but the United States corrections system has been running a race of its own for decades. Most of the public was shocked when it learned earlier this year that for the first time in history, one in 100 American adults is under some form of correctional supervision. State budgets are in crisis, and departments of correction are often targeted for cutbacks during rough economic times.

While neither candidate has proposed any sort of “corrections bailout plan,” both McCain and Obama have offered a wide range of correctional campaign promises for 2008. Now it’s up to voters to decide the plans they like best, and most importantly, who they think will turn promises into reality.

Recidivism Redux

Both Obama and McCain voted for the Second Chance Act, a bill signed into law this March that authorizes up to $360 million for reentry services in the next two years. Each candidate is pledging to commit continued support to the new law.

"I believe we must create a pathway for people coming out of jail to get the jobs, skills, and education they need to leave a life of crime,” Obama said when the bill was signed. “That means supporting effective training and mentoring programs to help people transition into jobs. That means reevaluating the laws against hiring people with a criminal record, so that we don't foreclose effective ways to bring people out of poverty and deter them from committing new crimes.”

Obama is also proposing a prison-to-work incentive program, modeled on the Welfare-to-Work Partnership. The program would provide training and support services to ex-offenders and improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates.

McCain commonly points out that the Second Chance Act, which will fund many faith-based re-entry programs, could ultimately save American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Unless we change our approach over the next four years, these released prisoners are likely to re-offend in very high numbers, committing millions of new crimes and finding millions of new victims,” McCain told the National Sheriff’s Association in June. “And we need to be as committed in preparing them for freedom as we were in taking that freedom away.”

“Ex-convicts need more than a few bucks and a bus ticket out of town,” he added. “Many will need job training, a place to live, mentors, family counseling, and much more. Beyond government, there are churches and community groups all across our country that stand ready to help even more. And these groups will have the committed support of my administration.”

Just Juvenile

Neither candidate has made many direct references to the juvenile corrections system, but both are promising reforms that could ultimately lower high school dropout and juvenile crime rates. Obama is championing plans to promote responsible fatherhood and to extend summer school opportunities to low-income students.

“If you are an African-American child unlucky enough to be born into [urban poverty], you… are less likely to start with a father in your household, and if he is there, there's a fifty-fifty chance that he never finished high school and the same chance he doesn't have a job,” Obama said in a speech on urban poverty. “Your school isn't likely to have the right books or the best teachers. You're more likely to encounter gang-activities than after-school activities. And if you can't find a job because the most successful businessman in your neighborhood is a drug dealer, you're more likely to join that gang yourself.”

McCain, especially in recent weeks, has been toughening up his promises on education reform. If elected, he says he will turn around America’s poorly performing schools.

“For all the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the worst problems of our public school system are often found in black communities,” McCain told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in August. “Black and Latino students are among the most likely to drop out of high school. African-Americans are also among the least likely to go on to college.”

McCain’s education reform plan involves recruiting the top 25 percent of college graduates to the teaching field and paying bonuses to teachers who choose to work in the country’s most troubled schools.

Crime and Alternative Punishment

Obama and McCain each have shown interest in changing how certain offenders in the United States are sentenced and handled by the criminal justice system. On the campaign trail, McCain is emphasizing his efforts to strengthen the country’s laws against sexual predators. He will be a strong proponent, he says, of aggressively pursuing Internet predators.

“When anyone is convicted of a sexual assault on a child, they should stay in prison for a long time, and their names should stay forever on the National Sex Offender Public Registry,” McCain said. “When they are released - if they are released - they should be tracked both in their physical movements and in their Internet usage.”

He also is pledging to fully implement the Adam Walsh Act , which includes lifetime registration for child sexual offenders. McCain says he will also fund the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces. These groups employ many sheriffs' deputies across the nation to track purveyors of child pornography.

Obama has made it clear he believes the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine “is wrong” and should be completely eliminated, an issue that received much media attention earlier this year. He also wants to expand the use of drug courts. Obama is aiming to give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better in changing bad behavior than a prison term.

Unique to McCain

Unlike Obama, McCain has connected illegal immigration and its burden on local county jails. McCain says he believes the responsibility and cost of detaining, prosecuting, and deporting illegal aliens who commit crimes should fall on the federal government.

“Tens of thousands of felons, in custody and at large, entered our country illegally,” McCain said. “Why has it has fallen to sheriffs and other local officials to protect their citizens from these foreign-born felons? Because our federal government failed to protect our borders from their entry, and this serious dereliction of duty must end.”

According to McCain, he would expand the Criminal Alien Program, which identifies currently incarcerated illegal immigrants and secures their deportation at the time of their release. If the federal government failed to keep an illegal immigrant out of the country, he says it must help pay the cost of that individual’s incarceration. The senator wants a system where state and local governments do not have the burden of the high costs and extensive regulation associated with deportation proceedings.

Unique to Obama

While both candidates have pledged support to ongoing Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, Obama alone has outlined a plan to address New Orleans’ struggle to rebuild its criminal justice system. Katrina devastated the city’s police stations, jails, courthouses, and community corrections infrastructure. New Orleans had the country’s highest murder rate in 2007.

“Instead of unsafe streets and shocking crimes, we will help New Orleans rebuild its criminal justice system,” Obama said in a speech on Katrina recovery. “We'll start a new ‘COPS for Katrina’ program to put more resources into community policing… And we'll launch a regional effort that brings together federal, state and local resources to combat crime and drug gangs across the Gulf Coast.”

The Democratic nominee plans to help communities impacted by Katrina hire and retain new police, corrections officers and community prosecutors. His goal is to develop community-based crime fighting strategies and rebuild damaged criminal justice infrastructure. The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office facilities, including its kitchen, warehouse, communications and data center, intake and processing center, all currently require millions of rebuilding dollars. Obama says his administration will also strengthen Drug Enforcement Administration efforts to stop the reestablishment of drug gangs across the region.

You Decide

When the last piece of red, white, and blue confetti falls, and all of the front-lawn campaign signs are uprooted, the United States will have decided on a new leader for the next four crucial years.

Hopefully, whoever wins the 2008 presidential election will remember that nearly every issue he fought on during his campaign is inextricably linked to corrections. The economy, education, national security, health care, immigration, employment – corrections is affected by and influences all of these issues. Hopefully, he will realize that every American, of every race, age, and political party, has a stake in this important piece of our society.

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