Poll: Majority Supports Prison and Justice Reforms

Poll: Majority Supports Prison and Justice Reforms
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A majority of Americans believe that too many drug offenders are in prison, according to a new poll that shows strong support for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.

The survey, released by the Pew Charitable Trusts and provided in advance to RealClearPolitics, shows that most of the American public is largely supportive of criminal justice reform and comes as a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress continues to push for changes to sentencing guidelines.

Six in ten Americans say there are too many drug criminals taking up space in prison, while just 35 percent said that if that’s the number of drug offenders, then that’s the number that should be in prison. The belief falls across party lines, as 70 percent of Democrats and half of Republicans said too many drug offenders are incarcerated – and even a majority of law enforcement households agreed, according to the survey, conducted by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies.

An overwhelming number of Americans, 79 percent, also approve of eliminating all mandatory minimums for drug cases and giving judges flexibility based on the individual cases. Again, a majority of Democrats and Republicans agree on this issue.

The vast majority of poll respondents – 85 percent – also support allowing people in prison to earn time off their sentences through programs intended to reduce the chances of recidivism.

While issues of criminal justice reform appear to have bipartisan consensus among the American public, they also have achieved a rare bipartisan consensus in Washington. President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have all indicated that reform is an area that could see progress in Congress this year despite the election.

The co-sponsors of legislation that provides some relief from mandatory minimums, including those for nonviolent drug offenders, are second-ranking Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and second-ranking Republican Sen. John Cornyn and conservative Republican Sen. Mike Lee. Their bill passed out of committee last year.

The measure has hit a snag, with some GOP senators suggesting the bill could allow violent criminals to be released. Earlier this week, however, Lee said the legislation is “getting momentum” and though there are detractors, “those who are with us outnumber those who are against us.”

Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a mark-up of legislation intended to allow people in prison to reduce their sentences if they participate in programs that could reduce their chance of returning.

If the bill does make it through Congress this year, proponents may have public opinion on their side. The survey concluded, “Voters are ready and willing to reform the criminal justice system in ways that reduce the size and cost of the federal prison system.”

The poll, which surveyed 1,200 registered voters Jan. 13-19, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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