For decades, politicians have been celebrated -- sometimes even rewarded -- for spouting "tough on crime" rhetoric and supporting laws that have inflated the nation's inmate population and made the U.S. the world's leading jailer. But voters from both parties have grown weary of such policies and overwhelmingly support broad reforms aimed at reducing the prison population, according to a public opinion poll released this week.
The poll, released by The Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, shows that large majorities of voters believe too many drug offenders are incarcerated; mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes should be abolished; and that prisoners should be allowed to participate in jailhouse job-training or drug-treatment programs that could reduce sentences.
In short, voters consider the federal prison population to be "too large, too expensive, and too often incarcerating the wrong people," reads the Pew report.
This should not come as a surprise, Adam Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project, told The Huffington Post.
"Our surveys have shown for several years now that voters realize we are not going to build our way to public safety with more and more prisons," he said. "Large majorities believe we are locking up far too many people for far too long and that there are alternatives that work better and cost less."
Drug offenders make up nearly half of the federal prison population, and many have been locked up for nonviolent crimes. Sixty-one percent of survey respondents said "that is too many drug criminals taking up too much space" in prisons and would rather see that space used for people who have committed violent crimes or acts of terrorism.
Only 20 percent of voters said that a drug courier, or mule, who is paid to transport drugs should receive the current mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. Similarly, just 25 percent of those surveyed said street dealers selling illegal drugs deserve that same sentence. Less than 40 percent of voters believe people who grow and produce illegal drugs should get harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
However, voters do think the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence should be enforced for drug kingpins -- nearly 70 percent say that current sentencing rules should still be used on leaders of organized drug rings.
In general, however, a strong majority of respondents said that mandatory minimum sentences should be reformed or abolished. Eight in 10 voters want judges to have the flexibility to use the facts of a specific case to determine sentences for both drug offenses (79 percent support) and a variety of other criminal cases (77 percent support).
Further, the survey organization found broad support for eliminating mandatory minimums in federal cases: Seventy-eight percent of Democrats, 73 percent Republicans and 83 percent of independents support doing away with them. Most people who live with someone who has been the victim of a violent crime victim (72 percent) or a member of law enforcement (68 percent) also say they should be abolished.
"Among no group does support fall below the two-thirds level," Pew notes about elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.
Allowing people to shorten their sentences by participating in programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism -- like drug treatment and job-training classes -- was also a popular idea. At least 85 percent of respondents said inmates who engaged in such programs should be able to shorten their time in prison by 15 percent or even 30 percent.
Another 83 percent said a court should be allowed to review cases of nonviolent federal offenders who are at least 60 years old to determine if they can be released from prison and placed on community supervision instead. Eighty-four percent supported a similar plan for terminally ill inmates.
The U.S. is home to nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners, despite having less than 5 percent of its population. Another 7 million people are either on probation or on parole. Caging and monitoring this many people costs the U.S. over $80 billion a year.
Reducing these numbers would require reforms well beyond the federal prison system, which houses about one-tenth of the nation's inmates. More than 1.3 million people nationwide are being held in state prisons. Almost 650,000 people around the country are currently locked up in local jails, and nearly 70 percent of them haven't actually been convicted of anything.
Several criminal justice reform organizations are actively working to reduce the U.S. prison population by as much as 50 percent in the next 10 to 15 years. And since 2007, more than half of all states have implemented legislation targeting prison growth. The laws vary, but typically are aimed at expanding alternatives to incarceration at the state level and prioritizing imprisoning only the most serious and violent offenders.
The results of this survey about the federal justice system is a sign that there may be even deeper interest in broad, systemic reforms.
"Outside the Washington bubble, state leaders on both sides of the aisle are seeing that it’s not only possible to cut crime and incarceration at the same time, they’re seeing that it’s possible to champion criminal justice reform and get re-elected at the same time," Gelb said.
The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies surveyed 1,200 registered voters nationwide. Interviews were conducted by telephone, including both cell phones and landlines, Jan. 13 to 19.