New Poll Shows Surprisingly Forgiving Attitude Toward Crime and Punishment: Most Americans Don't Want to Throw Away the Key
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON – A new poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union released today reveals a strong dissatisfaction with the current state of the criminal justice system in America and a growing public confidence in rehabilitation and alternative punishments for non-violent offenders.
“Contrary to popular belief, punishment and retribution are not foremost in most Americans’ minds,” said Nadine Strossen, President of the ACLU. “In fact, this new study shows our nation to be far more concerned with rehabilitation and social reintegration than with throwing away the proverbial key.”
Click here to view survey results in PDF format.
Of particular interest are the encouraging public attitudes about drugs and drug crimes revealed in the study. According to the poll, a majority of Americans draw sharp distinctions between trafficking in illicit narcotics and other drug offenses. While a majority believes that drug dealers should always be sent to prison, far fewer agree that users (25 percent), minor possessors (19 percent) or buyers (27 percent) should always be locked up.
“I’m sure that the nation’s new drug czar would be surprised to learn that, in reality, a majority of Americans have come to realize that we cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem,” Strossen said. “Our findings shine a glaring spotlight on the misdirection of the drug war over the last two decades.”
The public’s recognition of the misdirection of the drug war and the race to incarcerate in America, the ACLU said, is also reflected in the finding that a majority of Americans (61 percent) oppose mandatory sentences that require an automatic sentence for non-violent crimes.
Federal and state policies do not yet reflect the popular attitude among Americans brought out in the main findings of the poll. Specifically, the poll shows that lawmakers and prosecutors should start to take into account the fact that a majority of Americans support alternative punishments for non-violent offenders, believe that rehabilitation is an important goal for the courts and prisons, and are strongly dissatisfied with the current state of the criminal justice system.
Many organizations have questioned whether Americans indeed have a lock-`em-up mentality, yet the ACLU’s survey is the first to empirically demonstrate that this is not an accurate characterization.
“Politicians used to be able to score votes by placing as many people behind bars as possible and treating them as poorly as possible,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “This poll suggests that times have changed. When inmates are freed, the American public wants to see productive and well-adjusted members of society, not seasoned graduates of an Academy for Hardened Criminals.”
Prominent in the polling results is surprising support for and emphasis on rehabilitation for non-violent offenders. According to the poll, six in ten Americans believe that it is possible to rehabilitate a non-violent offender; four in ten believe the main purpose of prison is rehabilitation, rather than deterrence, punishment, or the protection of society.
The study also found strong public support for changing the current laws so that fewer non-violent offenses are punishable by prison (62 percent). In particular, Americans showed enthusiasm for alternatives for non-violent offenders such as mandatory education and job training (81 percent), compensation to victims (76 percent) and community service (80 percent).
The poll also studied society’s views on education and skills training for offenders and showed very strong support for providing inmates with skills training in prison (88 percent).
“In many states, more money is spent on locking up non-violent offenders than on higher education,” Murphy said. “It is particularly encouraging to see public recognition that prison cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of American justice.”
“It is important to note that the poll does not show Americans to be lenient toward crime,” said Kate Stewart, Partner at Belden, Russonello & Stewart. “Rather, it reveals that while Americans demand immediate consequences for criminal activity, they also believe that the punishment should fit the crime. Accordingly, most do not think that prison is always the most appropriate answer to non-violent crime.”
Only a very small minority of Americans believes punishment (two in ten) or deterrence (one in ten) to be the main role of the courts or prisons.
The survey also shows that most Americans believe that prisons are largely failing in their rehabilitative mandate (six in ten). The poll therefore demonstrates, the ACLU said, that American citizens are dissatisfied with the status quo and favor decisive reforms of the criminal justice system that will render it more practical, more realistic and more responsive to current social needs.
The ACLU study was conducted by the private firm Belden, Russonello & Stewart (BRS). The polling firm conducted telephone interviews during January of 2001 with 2,000 adults randomly selected across the United States. The margin of sampling error for the entire survey is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points at the 95 percent level of tolerance.
Optimism, Pessimism, and Jailhouse Redemption:
American Attitudes on Crime, Punishment, and Over-Incarceration
Findings from a National Survey Conducted for the ACLU By Belden, Russonello & Stewart
WASHINGTON – Recent focus on the dominant role of incarceration in American crime policy as well as the explosion in prison populations and construction over the past three decades prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to commission a survey examining American attitudes and opinions regarding the issue. This study revealed a strong dissatisfaction with the current state of the criminal justice system in the United States and an abiding popular confidence in rehabilitation and alternative punishments.
a) Americans believe that prison is not the be-all-and-end-all of American justice. Large majorities support alternative punishments for many non-violent offenses. [Q. 16, 24, 46-50]
b) A majority of Americans (61 percent) oppose mandatory sentences that require an automatic sentence for non-violent crimes. [Q. 26]
c) Most Americans believe that it is possible to rehabilitate non-violent offenders and, consequently, believe that the over-riding goal of prison is not punishment, deterrence, or retribution. [Q. 14, 18] A large majority of Americans want prisons to focus more on skills training. [Q. 23]
d) Americans are dissatisfied with the current state of the criminal justice and prison systems. A majority (62 percent) wants to see the laws changed such that fewer non-violent offenses are punishable by prison sentences. [Q. 24]
Other interesting findings:
· Three-quarters of Americans favor treatment and probation over prison for non-violent drug use. [Q. 16]
· Six in ten believe it is possible to rehabilitate a non-violent offender. [Q. 18 – A]
· The public draws a sharp distinction between trafficking in illicit drugs and buying, possessing, and using illegal drugs; while most believe drug dealers should always be sent to prison, far fewer agree that users (25 percent), minor possessors, (19 percent), or buyers (27 percent) should always be incarcerated. [Q. 6-9]
· The poll shows very strong support for alternative punishments such as mandatory education and job training (81 percent), compensation to victims (76 percent), and community service (80 percent). [Q. 46-50]
· Only one in ten Americans believe the main purpose of prison is deterrence; while four in ten believe prisons should be a tool for rehabilitation. [Q. 14]
· Six in ten Americans believe that prisons are failing in their mandate to rehabilitate those incarcerated. This further highlights the fact that most people want a more practical and realistic prison system. [Q. 15]
Over the past 25 years, prison has occupied an increasingly dominant role in American crime policy. Beginning in the early 1970s, the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice began to prevail in many policy circles and began to win votes at the polls. In response, the government funded the construction of prisons and started to lock up offenders, especially those convicted of non-violent offenses, at previously unheard-of rates. The situation was exacerbated by the “war on drugs” in the 1980s; mandatory sentences forced hundreds of thousands of low-level, non-violent, and predominantly African-American and Hispanic drug offenders into the nation’s correctional facilities.
Today, the United States houses approximately 2 million prisoners at an annual cost of more than $40 billion. More than half of those incarcerated have been convicted of a non-violent offense. In the mid-1990s, nearly half of all prisoners were African-American; today, 3 in 10 newborn African-American males can expect to spend time in prison at some point in their lives.
In several states, more money is spent on prison construction and upkeep than on higher education.
The public sector has allowed this situation to proceed apace for several reasons, including the belief that the American public actually wants such a policy direction. Many organizations have questioned whether or not American society is indeed of a lock-`em-up mentality, yet the ACLU’s survey is the first to empirically demonstrate that this is not an accurate characterization.
The poll shows that a majority of Americans are concerned with the context of a criminal act and believe that, for non-violent offenders, positive change is possible through government intervention — be it in prison, treatment programs, job training, or education. Further, the poll shows strong dissatisfaction with the current state of the criminal justice system and a belief that, in its current form, it is not serving the best interests of society.
The ACLU study was conducted by the private firm Belden, Russonello & Stewart (BRS). The polling firm conducted telephone interviews during January of 2001 with 2000 adults randomly selected across the United States. The margin of sampling error for the entire survey is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points at the 95 percent level of tolerance.
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