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Pew Study: strong majority of voters favor alternatives to incarceration

A new Pew research poll released last week shows that voters across the U.S. are overwhelmingly in favor of reducing prison spending and support shifting resources to community supervision rather than incarceration, specifically for low-level offenders.  The national poll also shows that voters prioritize reductions in recidivism as the primary "end goal" of corrections, even if it means offenders spend less time behind bars and more time in rehabilitative programming.   Public attitudes also strongly support probation and parole as effective system tools for rehabilitation and support increased investments in community supervision to increase their effectiveness.

What is most surprising is that support for these proposals is strong across Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, and does not waver significantly among those voters who have been victims of crime compared to non-victims.  The vast majority of Americans, across ideological and geographical lines, believe that public safety systems can hold offenders accountable for their crimes while also reducing overall costs and size of prison systems.  

The Pew study also makes it clear that voters respond to certain "values messages" about corrections compared to others.  Between 87%-92% of national voters responded that they "Agreed" or "Strongly Agreed" with statements that support increased investments in community supervision and increased accountability over prison spending and effectiveness.  Other strong messages include:

"We have too many low-risk, non- violent offenders in prison. We need alternatives to incarceration that cost less and save our expensive prison space for violent and career criminals." (88% support)

"Ninety-five percent of people in prison will be released. If we are serious about public safety, we must increase access to treatment and job training programs so they can become productive citizens once they are back in the community." (87% support)

The message that was the least effective in public polling (50% support) was, "Parole and probation are just a slap on the wrist and not a substitute for prison."    

The study found that these public attitudes have remained steady since a similar poll in 2010 as well as among recent state polls conducted in Georgia, Missouri, and Oregon.

Public Opinion & Adult Realignment in California
These shifts in public opinion are especially significant in California as adult realignment approaches its sixth month of implementation.  Adult realignment was designed with community corrections for lower-level offenders in mind.   Language in the legislature in enacting realignment (Cal. Penal Code 17.5(a)3,4) states that,

"Criminal justice policies that rely on building and operating more prisons to address community safety concerns are not sustainable, and will not result in improved public safety.   California must reinvest its criminal justice resources to support community-based corrections programs and evidence-based practices that will achieve improved public safety returns on this state's substantial investment in its criminal justice system."

What is alarming is that the funding allocations in AB 109 actually direct local corrections policy in the opposite direction.   As a recent ACLU report and a Stanford Law School report has shown, the AB 109 funding formula incentivizes building more local jails rather than investing in community supervision, and penalized those counties that had historically relied more on local solutions and less on state incarceration.  The gaping disparity between the law's intent and its funding formula sets the state on a collision course with both public opinion as well as with what data has shown are best practices for supervising and rehabilitating low-level offenders.

Many legislators have expressed frustration at how counties in their districts have been penalized for showing positive outcomes through innovative local practices with low-level offenders.  Criminal justice experts and advocacy groups are advancing legislation to amend AB 109 and create a more data-driven funding formula that matches the intent of AB 109.  California has a unique and fleeting opportunity to get adult realignment right.  As this Pew study shows, the Governor and the Legislature are on the side of public opinion., at least for the time being. The devil, as they say, is in the details . . . of implementation, accountability, and evaluation of effectiveness.  It's clear that a realignment "fix" is needed this year to at least give counties a fighting chance at success, rather than going back to incarceration-only policies and practices repeatedly proven to be ineffective in achieving long-term public safety.

Keywords: AB 109, best practices, Brian Heller de Leon, fiscal policy

Posted in Blog, Realignment

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