A significant majority of Americans believe putting people behind bars for non-violent offenses is a wrong—and almost three-quarters favor “rehabilitation” over jail when such offenses are committed by those who suffer from mental illness, according to a Zogby Analytics/RTI International poll released today.
The results, from an online survey completed by 3,007 persons across the country between December 9-13, are a sharp counterpoint to the “law-and-order” rhetoric that many observers considered one of the key appeals of President Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House last fall.
According to the poll, commissioned by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 62 percent of those surveyed agreed that “rehabilitating or treating the person” was a more appropriate response to non-violent offenders than incarceration. Some 74 percent opposed imprisonment for offenders who were mentally ill.
The survey specifically asked respondents only about their attitudes towards crimes that did not involve violence, a sexual offense, or significant property loss. So the results may not necessarily reflect similar attitudes towards violent offenders—a category that the Trump administration claims represents a rising danger to the country.
All the same, the survey revealed a telling ambiguity among Americans towards punishment after several decades of tough-on-crime policies that have shunted over 2.3 million Americans into prison today—many of them people of color.
Almost 20 times that number of jail admissions are recorded annually—nearly 12 million—many of which represent detentions of individuals who have not been convicted and are awaiting trial.
Just 18 percent of survey respondents considered punishment to be the central purpose of jail, while nearly twice that number (33 percent) felt jail time should incorporate the kind of treatment or rehabilitation that would prevent future crimes.
Supporters of bail reform are likely to be encouraged by another survey result which showed two-thirds of the respondents believe that release of those awaiting trail should be determined by the danger they might pose to public safety, rather than by their ability to pay money bail.
Most tellingly, when told that three out of every four persons in jail today were detained for non-violent offenses like traffic, property and drug violations, only 13 percent of Americans said they were aware of that fact.