NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The nation's largest private prison operator is announcing a stepped-up effort to lobby for government programs and policies to keep former inmates from returning behind bars, saying it doesn't want the repeat business burdening prisons nationwide.

CoreCivic also announced Tuesday that its campaign contributions would prioritize political candidates who seek to tackle recidivism, which has taxpayers paying for return tickets to prison. A Brookings Institution study shows it costs about $80 billion a year to hold more than 2.1 million people in America's prisons and jails.

Critics have scoffed at CoreCivic's previous anti-recidivism promises, saying the private prisons industry relies on incarceration and cost-cutting to make money, so there's no incentive to try to keep inmates from ending up back in jail. Of the 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, 77 percent were re-arrested within five years, and more than half returned to prison, a federal study found.

"A lot of folks would assume that we have a view that the status quo is fine, and that's just not our view," said Tony Grande, CoreCivic executive vice president and chief development officer. "We want to be a part of the solution."

The company said it also will lobby to protect employers who hire former inmates from negligent-hiring lawsuits; to support re-entry programs and their funding; and to support private recidivism programs in which governments only have to pay contractors if certain goals are met.

CoreCivic said it has only previously lobbied for its government contracts to run prisons, lease out jail space and hold immigrant detainees. The company says it doesn't lobby for or against policies that determine someone's incarceration. But it says helping inmates avoid follow-up trips to jail is a widely-supported policy area in which they can provide expertise.

CoreCivic is looking to build on efforts to improve its image after changing its name a year ago from Corrections Corporation of America and saying it would spend $250 million on a network of community corrections centers to help keep people out of prison.

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the prisoner rights publication Prison Legal News, said the announcement is about a public relations campaign and does nothing to promise to cut into profits or take executive pay cuts to reduce recidivism.

"These companies are first and foremost in the business of making money," Friedmann said. "They are not in the business of putting themselves out of business, which in theory, if they were really successful at reducing recidivism, is what would happen."

The company has an extensive lobbying operation that cost $2.6 million in 2014 and $1.5 million in 2015. CoreCivic also spent $1.1 million in 2014 and $781,800 in 2015 on political donations, according to company reports. CoreCivic doesn't have a specific dollar goal to spend on lobbying for its new campaign. CoreCivic also said its lobbyists will note their efforts to gain policy changes in state and federal lobbying reports.

Before CoreCivic signs a campaign check, a political candidate's stances on what the company sees as four major recidivism issues would be taken into account. But Grande said there would no hard-and-fast rule on what's required to support a candidate.

Among concrete steps, CoreCivic said it will advocate for "ban the box" policies to keep employers from asking about a job applicant's criminal history until after an initial interview. "Ban the box" policies have been put in place for state workers in 29 states, while nine states have removed the conviction history question from private employer job applications, according to the National Employment Law Project.

The company said its own job application eliminated a box to check for criminal history in 2016, although some positions require questioning about certain crimes due to state and federal requirements and contractual terms.