Public Strongly Favors Prison Reform, Surveys Find

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Justice reform activists say that new polling reinforces their contention that a solid majority of Americans support their goals of imprisoning fewer non-violent offenders and doing more to rehabilitate criminals.

The surveys were released yesterday by the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan coalition that has been campaigning for changing criminal justice laws and policies on both the federal and state level.

The polling was done by the Tarrance Group, which calls itself a “Republican strategic research and polling firm” that has helped to elect more than 80 Republican governors and members of Congress.

The pollsters asked voters in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin about criminal justice practices. They said there was virtually equal support for reform among Republicans and Democrats.

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of voters in six states surveyed agreed that federal prisons in the U.S. house too many non-violent criminals. More than 70 percent of voters in each state agreed that the criminal justice system should aim to rehabilitate “criminals to become productive, law-abiding citizens.”

In five of six states surveyed, more than 60 percent of voters agree the federal government should remove barriers that make it more difficult for released prisoners to find jobs.

Nearly three-fourths of voters in all six states favor dropping mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders and allow judges to use their discretion in sentencing.

It is not new that polls find support for prisoner rehabilitation and for treating non-violent offenders more leniently, but the polling may be helpful in seeking legislative support in Congress and state legislatures.

In Washington, D.C., bipartisan groups in both the Senate and House are trying to advance bills that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug and firearms offenses that have helped fill federal prisons with nearly 200,000 inmates, spending about one-fourth of the U.S. Justice Department’s budget.

The bills have been held up by two major issues: complaints by some Republicans that they would release too many violent prisoners, and the insistence by many conservatives on including a provision that would make it more difficult to prosecute white-collar criminals who argued they were not aware they were breaking a law.

The Justice Action Network hopes that the surveys will help it push for reform bills in a dozen states it is concentrating on this year: Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.

Reformers can claim one state victory already, young in the year’s legislative season.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill that will let ex-offenders who have stayed out of trouble for 10 years after a conviction for most second- or third-degree misdemeanors ask judges to have records of the old crime sealed,reported

The change would remove the convictions from employers’ background checks, school admissions or loan applications. “Too many first-time and low-level offenders are serving their time and unable to improve their lives after leaving the system because they have a criminal record,” Wolf said.

“They are too likely then to return to the system.”

One issue with translating poll results into legislation is that it may not be clear to lawmakers who is a non-violent offender who deserves release.

At the beginning of 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 53 percent of state prison inmates are there for violent offenses and the rest for property or drug violations or other crimes.

Prosecutors argue that many drug offenders actually are violent, and that the public would support prison for repeat property offenders, such as a person guilty of multiple burglaries, even if there is no proof of violence.

Nearly half of federal prisoners are there for drug offenses. Of the rest, about 14,000 are serving time for sex offenses and 12,000 for financial crimes such as extortion, fraud or bribery.

Despite the polling results, there may be no public consensus in a given case that a sex offender or fraudster is among the “too many” non-violent inmates.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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