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The Politics of Corrections
By Steven C. Kelly, Director Jail and Court Services Bureau (Ret)
Published: 02/02/2015

Elections ahead Corrections at the local level is impacted by the political winds nearly every four years. Those of us who work, or have worked, in our nation's jails are lucky if we have not felt the impact of this process. It is no mystery that a majority of the jails in the United States fall under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff. In most cases the Sheriff is elected by popular vote. We are proud of our democratic process, but the question is, do we always end up with the best person to lead us in the business of corrections?

When we watch the campaigning of the various candidates; do we ask ourselves, does this person understand the needs and demands of the jail? Is this person committed to making the jail safer and more effective, and is he or she willing to fight with the legislative body to obtain the funds needed to meet those goals?

Does your association or union endorse or support a candidate for this office? Are there concerns about the fall out should the “anointed” candidate not win? These are tricky waters and sometimes the outcomes are not the expected. I knew an associate who was shocked when a Sergeant ran against the incumbent sheriff and won. This may not be that rare in smaller jurisdictions; however, this agency was over 1000 employees strong and in a major metropolitan area. While this may sound like a nice Cinderella story, there are vast differences in the experience level between the new sheriff and the past sheriff. The learning curve for the new sheriff was steep and one can imagine some of the landmines that were tripped along the way. One of the other unfortunate truths is that most Sheriff’s run on their positions on what they will do for the community; how they will improve patrol, perform better investigations, etc. They often do not talk much about the jail. Taking these positions on community-patrol issues are a no-brainer since that is the public face of the agency.

Most often, the only time the jail becomes an issue is when there is some sort of glaring problem, such as mistreatment, a consent decree, or other high profile issue. One of the reasons for this lack of campaigning on jail issues is something we all know. The general public has little understanding of what really happens in a jail and why it might be important to them. I have said that we are a little bit like a submarine, they know we exist, most are not sure where we are, who is in it, or what we are doing. Unless we sink, no one seems to notice.

I once asked my agency Public Information Officer to publish a release about a new program that we were initiating that had the potential to improve the number of inmates completing some of the rehabilitative programs, thus (in theory) reducing those who recidivate at the local level. The response was, “the press will not pick this up as they (the community) don’t care. If it does not directly impact them, they are not interested.” Sort of a reverse of if it “bleeds it leads theory.” Often, the only concern the public has about the jail, is how much of their tax dollar is being spent there. One can see visible reflections of these concerns with jails that operate tent cities, chain gangs, and other non-standard housing and work practices. I am not saying these are bad or good, it is the politics that influence the formation of these practices. Often the public likes programs that seem to make offenders “pay” regardless of their true effectiveness.

The real question is, does the current candidate understand the function of the jail in that jurisdiction? If not, is that candidate willing to bring in experts to advise him/her so that the best decisions are made? In many jurisdictions the candidate comes from the patrol environment or even outside of the sheriff’s office.

I recently was involved in a candidate’s run for sheriff in the primary. My candidate had a 28 year history with the agency, held positions in all divisions and held both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. On the other end of the spectrum is a candidate whose entire career has been at the trooper level with the Highway patrol who does not currently have a college degree. However, the trooper spent the last 10 years as the public information officer for the Highway Patrol. So who do you think prevailed? You guessed it, the trooper. He came out of the primary with 48% of the vote. The second place candidate is the existing undersheriff who, after spending $154,000 garnered only 28% of the vote. It is unfortunate that my candidate did not win as he had many good plans that would have benefited the rank and file, but he entered the race late and did not garner the support to beat the others who had months of preparation on him.

So we move on to the General Election. Who did I support in the General? The answer may surprise you: I supported the trooper. Having watched the man run in the primary and having spoken with him on several occasions, I learned that though he did not have leadership experience in the Highway Patrol, he had a long history in the military. I also learned that he listened to the people around him and demonstrated sincere concerns for the issues of the community. The other candidate did not seem to have any new ideas and seemed satisfied with the status quo. There did not seem to be a lot of support from the rank and file either. Most of his support was coming from big business in the community.

What should you do? Pay attention to those who enter. Do they have a reputation for integrity and listening to those who work the line? Are they willing to educate themselves about the issues that impact their correctional system? During my years I have seen several sheriffs who ran on strong patrol issues, who, after winning, spent more than the expected time and effort on improving their jail operations. In most cases, they would admit, that they did not understand what a sophisticated operation a jail really is.

Support (either individually or through your association) the candidate that has the leadership to positively impact your correctional environment. Avoid those who make back room deals, are part of the good ole boy network, and are seeking the job for the position- not to do the right thing for their community.

None of us like the political season. There is always fear and trepidation about who will be elected and what type of unfair practices they will bring to the workplace and what this will mean for our future. But if we do not participate, then we cannot complain about the outcome.

Corrections.com author, Steven C. Kelly served 25 years at Washoe County Sheriff’s Office retiring as a captain. His last post was as the Jail Director for the Ada County Sheriff's office in Boise, ID. He holds a master degree in Management from the University of Phoenix and attended the FBI National Academy in 2009.

Other articles by Kelly:


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