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Pew research shows support for reduced sentences and alternative corrections is broad.
A nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Center on the States, Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group recently queried Americans about their thoughts on incarceration of both violent and non-violent criminals, alternative rehabilitation strategies, and the effort to reduce the nation's expenditure on traditional prisons.
Overall, support for a reduction in the prison population was strong (though not equal) though dissimilar results across political and geographic lines. More than 45% of those polled say there are currently too many people behind bars in the U.S. Only 13% believe there are too few, while 28% said the size of the prison population was "about right." When asked how many prisoners could be hypothetically released without posing a threat to public safety, the average response was 20%.
Researchers than gauged respondents' reactions to this: "Some of the money that we are spending on locking up low-risk, non-violent inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole." Nationwide, 84% of those polled either strongly or totally agreed with the idea, though reactions were more mixed when responses were broken down by political affiliation. More than 91% of Democrats either strongly or totally agreed compared with 85% of Independents and 77% of Republicans. Support for a shift away from non-violent criminal incarceration was also stronger in the Northeast and West regions of the country, with softer support in the South and Midwest.
Interestingly, the concept of shortening an inmate's prison sentence, but then requiring a mandatory period of supervision after release was supported equally by those polled—even when the idea was applied to both violent and non-violent offenders. If a non-violent offender was sentenced to five years in prison, 69% of survey respondents thought it would be better to release the offender after four years followed by a full year of supervision. For violent convicts, 67% still thought early release was a good idea, provided there was proper supervision after the criminal was released into society.
Use of new tracking technology was strongly supported by nearly all Americans represented in the survey to help strengthen the effectiveness of probation, parole and supervision programs. More than 92% of those polled either totally or strongly agreed with the concept of using new electronic tools to monitor where offenders are and what they are doing—whether that supervision occurs after, or as an alternative to, incarceration. The same percentage favored the requirement that offenders under supervision pass drug tests and either keep a job or perform community service while being supervised.
Overall, respondents rated the safety of their own communities relatively high, a factor that promotes open-mindedness about prison reform. On average, survey respondents said the level of safety in their local neighborhoods was about 8 out of 10-point scale, with 10 representing the safest.
The survey included responses from 1,200 likely voters, 32% identifying themselves as Republicans, 24% as Independents and 37% as Democrats. The margin of error in the poll is plus or minus 2.8%.
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