Study Targets Public Opinion on Incarceration

WASHINGTON — A recent report published by Pew in collaboration with the Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group found that many Americans are not satisfied with some operations taking place at correctional facilities around the country.

The report was based on a survey of 1,200 likely voters to measure underlying attitudes and support for specific policy changes. The survey found that many American voters believed that too many people are currently incarcerated and that the nation is spending too much money on imprisonment. The report also found that Americans supported the policy change that shifts nonviolent offenders from prison to a more effective and less expensive alternative. Reduced prison terms were also favored in the report across all political parties.

After the public poll only 15 percent of people strongly supported a “tough on crime” approach to the criminal justice system. Many Americans said they believed there are other alternatives for non-violent offenders that would save states money and treat those offenders who don’t pose a threat to society.

"There is widespread support for shorter sentences and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes, especially when prison savings are reinvested in less costly supervision options,” according to the report.

The report showed that there was also strong support in offering shorter prison terms to offenders — but only under certain circumstances.

Eighty-six percent of voters who took the survey believed that a nonviolent inmate should be released up to 6 months early if they have behaved well and are considered a low risk for committing another crime. Eighty-seven percent of voters also believed that the same inmate should be released up to 12 months early if they fall under the same category.

However, there were exceptions in voters’ opinions regarding sentencing and early release. When asked if an inmate should be released on parole after serving four years of a five year sentence 68 percent of voters were in favor — but when asked if an inmate should be released on parole after serving five years of a 10 year sentence only 19 percent were in favor of release.

The report showed that voters still wanted offenders to be punished for their crimes, but they also wanted to reduce the chances of a repeat offense.

“Voters strongly prefer that inmates be subject to a period of mandatory supervision, rather than be held until their sentences expire and released without any supervision, regardless of offense type,” said the report.

When voters were given the choice between violent offenders serving a full five-year prison sentence or four years of a five-year sentence plus one year of mandatory supervision, voters prefer the mandatory supervision option. Sixty-seven percent chose the shorter sentence option while only 26 percent supported the full sentence with no supervision upon release.

The report also posed questions about what to do when offenders leave a correctional facility and are on parole in the community.

“An effective probation and parole system would use new technologies to monitor where offenders are and what they are doing, require them to pass drug tests, and require they either keep a job or perform community service,” the report said.

Voters responded to the statement by supporting the effective probation system — 92 percent were in favor of the system that would monitor and require the parolee to be under closer supervision and held to higher standards.

“Some of the money that we are spending on locking up low-risk inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole,” the report stated.