Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Polls Show People Favor Rehabilitation over Incarceration

by Matt Clarke

A recent poll found a majority of Americans – 67 percent overall – believe that building more prisons and jails does not reduce crime. Nearly as many – 62 percent – don’t believe that more prisons would improve the quality of life in their communities, either. The survey of attitudes toward incarceration, conducted for the Vera Institute of Justice between February 27 and March 5, 2018, showed a similar attitude among both urban and rural respondents, with 61 percent of the latter agreeing that more prison construction would not affect crime rates.

The results mirror the findings of a November 2017 survey conducted for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, which found a solid majority of Americans – 71 percent – agreed that incarceration for long periods is counterproductive to public safety due to the absence of effective rehabilitation programs in prisons.

In another poll for the Justice Action Network (JAN) published in January 2018, 85 percent of respondents supported making rehabilitation the goal of the criminal justice system rather than punishment.

The three surveys follow a March 2017 poll conducted for the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which reported 62 percent of respondents favored rehabilitation over incarceration for non-violent offenders, while 74 percent opposed imprisonment altogether for the mentally ill.

The Vera survey sampled 2,000 adult Americans. About half (49 percent) agreed that “too many people are in jail for the wrong reasons,” and 55 percent believed the country’s criminal justice system discriminates against poor people. Forty percent said incarceration rates in their communities were too high, though two-thirds stated they would be concerned or very concerned if they learned the incarceration rate in their community was higher than the rate in similar communities.

At 30 percent, prisons and jails were assigned the lowest priority for construction and repair, behind schools and educational facilities (78 percent), roads and transportation (71 percent), hospitals and other health care centers (61 percent), and water treatment and irrigation plants (55 percent).

Building more prisons and jails ranked dead last on the list of quality of life priorities, behind providing more jobs and job training, building and improving roads and infrastructure, strengthening community-based mental health treatment, increasing community-based drug and alcohol treatment, creating parks and green space, investing in violence-reduction programs, reducing racism and bias, and investing in arts and culture.

For the ACLU poll, the Benenson Strategy Group interviewed over 1,000 adults across the country, 41 percent of whom described themselves as conservatives, 31 percent as liberals and 23 percent as moderates. Their level of agreement was significant, with 71 percent overall supporting a reduction in the prison population – 87 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Independents and 57 percent of Republicans, including 52 percent of those who reported voting for President Donald Trump.

Almost all – 91 percent – agreed that the U.S. criminal justice system needs reform, and more than two-thirds said they would be more likely to vote for political candidates who favor reducing the prison population and spending the savings on drug treatment and mental health programming. Nearly as many – 72 percent – would prefer a candidate opposed to mandatory minimum sentences.

A majority of respondents also recognized that the criminal justice system reflects racial bias, with just one-third believing it treats blacks fairly. A large majority – 84 percent – also agree that the mentally ill do not belong in prison.

Public Opinion Strategies conducted the JAN poll, which found support for criminal justice reform spanning the political spectrum – 68 percent among Republicans, 78 percent among Independents and 80 percent among Democrats. Of those polled, 87 percent disapproved of mandatory minimum sentences, instead favoring alternatives like electronic monitoring, community service or probation. Removing barriers to employment or education for those who have completed their sentences drew 90 percent support.

For the MacArthur Foundation survey, Zogby Analytics/RTI International polled over 3,000 people online in December 2016. The study queried respondents about their attitudes towards crimes that did not involve violence, a sexual offense or significant loss of property. Only 18 percent believed punishment should be the primary purpose of imprisonment in such cases; nearly twice as many – 33 percent – supported rehabilitation as a goal.

The poll also found support for reforming the money bail system, with two-thirds of respondents opposing pre-trial detention simply due to lack of funds to make bail. Perhaps most glaring was the finding that just 13 percent were aware that non-violent offenders account for 75 percent of jail populations.

According to Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach and public affairs strategist at the Vera Institute of Justice, local incarceration rates are strongly influenced by local actors such as judges and prosecutors. A judge who always gives out the maximum sentence or a prosecutor who always seeks the maximum penalties will increase a county’s incarceration rate. Such over-incarceration is not linked to less crime; instead, the economic distress resulting from higher incarceration rates may drive up the community’s crime rate.

In August 2016, the Alliance for Safety and Justice released the results of the first-ever survey of crime victims’ perspectives on the U.S. criminal justice system. A majority wanted prosecutors to look for alternatives to incarceration to hold criminal defendants accountable. Sixty-one percent preferred shorter sentences to spending on incarceration, while 38 percent believed incarceration actually increased recidivism. Eighty-nine percent of crime victims favored additional spending on schools and education over building more prisons and jails, 83 percent supported more spending on mental health treatment and 73 percent wanted increased drug treatment instead of incarceration.

The survey found that young and poor people were more likely to be victims of crime. The victimization rate for those between 18 and 24 was twice that of all other age groups, and the rate for those earning less than $15,000 a year was thrice that of those making at least $75,000. Over a third of violent crime victims had previously been a victim of violent crime. Two-thirds of the victims surveyed received no help after the crime; most who received help got it from family and friends.

“The data is clear – when it comes to criminal justice, Americans want reform and rehabilitation,” concluded Udi Ofer, who serves as deputy national political director and director of the Campaign for Smart Justice at the ACLU.

Now we just need elected officials to listen to the people who support criminal justice reforms. 



As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login