New Survey Says Public Favorable To Cutting Prison Populations

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A new public opinion survey on crime and sentencing issues gives policymakers some breathing room on moves to reduce prison populations during this time of budget crises in states. Most registered voters believe that about one fifth of inmates could be released and not pose a threat to public safety, said the survey sponsored by the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project.

The survey found vast majorities (nearly 90%) favoring the concept of fewer low-risk and non-violent offenders behind bars to keep more violent offenders imprisoned, and to reinvest any money saved in probation and parole improvements. About 2/3 of Democrats and about half of Republicans “strongly” favor” such changes, meaning that they have reasonably strong bipartisan backing.

Daniel Franklin of the Benenson Strategy Group, which did the survey with Public Opinion Strategies, said that most Americans see crime policy “through a personal rather than political lens.” At the same time, both Franklin and Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies said that politicians in general still would be wise not to be portrayed as “soft on crime.”

The survey, of 1,200 registered voters across the U.S. taken last March, found that the citizenry may not be so harsh on crime as some political candidates may believe. Only 37 percent, for example, believe that anyone who sells drugs should be sent to prison on a first offense; the number jumps to 43 percent for burglaries in unoccupied homes and for offenses committed by people on probation and parole (63 percent automatic prison for probationers or parolees possessing drugs with the intent to sell, for example.)

The public is more favorable to cutting spending prisons than on some other key governmental functions. Asked in which areas cuts are not acceptable, 71 percent named schools but only 27 percent identified prisons. The survey showed strong support for the “justice reinvestment” concept of using money saved from cutting back on prison expenditures for probation and parole programs, 86 percent finding the idea “convincing.”

Despite the fact that national crime report totals have been dropping since the mid-1990s, people surveyed believe violent crime inceased nearly 30 percent last year, about the same number as 2001.

The survey offered some advice for criminal justice reformers on the terms they use for offenders who are out of prison. “Mandatory supervision” was by far the most popular. “Alternatives to incarceration” and “intensive supervision” scored somewhat lower. Even lower than that were “community corrections” and “intermediate sanctions.” Focus groups indicated that many equate community corrections with community service, which struck many as a “light” punishment. The pollsters’ conclusion: “Using unfamiliar technical language could backfire.”

“Rehabilitation” didn’t come out very well as a main purpose of prison, getting only 25 percent of the vote compared with 31 percent for protecing society and 20 percent for punishment. Rehab scored 40 percent in a similar survey in 2001, although “justice to victims” was not included as a choice then. When added this time around, it got 10 percent of the votes.

McInturff, who has done surveys for Republicans, said a general conclusion of the survey was that Americans want a criminal justice system where offenders are held accountable but that they also are aware of shrinking state budgets and believe that prison populations can be reduced responsibly. A summary of the survey can be found at http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/initiatives_detail.aspx?initiativeID=60775

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