A new poll conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union shows an overwhelming majority of Americans view the nation’s prison system as overcrowded and believe it is imperative to reduce the country's prison population.
According to the survey, 69 percent of voters said lawmakers should begin to focus on reducing prison populations throughout the country. In terms of political views and ideologies, Democrats were the strongest support of more lenient punishments, with 81 percent agreeing with a reduction. Of independents, 71 percent felt similarly, while 54 percent of Republicans also agreed with prison reductions.
The survey notes the significant changes in criminal law since the 1980s and 1990s, where many lawmakers and law enforcement officials believed incarceration was the most effective way to reduce crime. More recently, former President Bill Clinton criticized his own administration’s “three strikes” policy that jailed many nonviolent drug offenders and other low-level criminals for decades.
Now, 58 percent of voters believe that using taxpayer dollars to better the community is more efficient than using funds to pay for the expensive prison population. Of those polled, 29 percent said a reduction would “harm communities because criminals who belong behind bars will be let out.”
Those who have been victims of crime in the past, which was 17 percent of all respondents, agreed with the majority’s sentiment on the burdens of an increasingly overcrowded and complex criminal justice system. Of the crime victims polled, 58 percent advocated for the reduction of the prison population, while 31 percent felt otherwise.
Many Americans believe the prison system is overcrowded due to the multiple arrests of nonviolent criminals who were charged with drug possession, theft or other nonviolent crimes. Others also point to high-profile cases throughout the nation where the alleged perpetrators faced mental health issues or addictions to drugs that clouded their state of mind.
In the survey, 87 percent of voters agreed that “drug addicts and those with mental illness should not be in prison, they belong in treatment facilities.” And 77 percent believed that nonviolent criminals will likely enter prison repeatedly because the prison system does not rehabilitate inmates well enough to stop criminals from becoming repeat offenders.
The recidivism rate in the U.S. has been debated for decades and is looked upon as a key figure in whether prison time is an effective technique to stop offenders from repeating their crimes. According to a 2014 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.8 percent of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime in a three-year span. The report dated back to 2005 figures and only covered 30 states.
In an article analyzing the study, Alison Holcomb of the ACLU noted that the federal prison population is much smaller than that of state and local prison populations. Only 200,000 inmates are held in federal prisons, while over 2 million are currently detained in local jails and state prisons, according to Holcomb’s research.