Sustained Outrage

Crime, prison and public perception

It’s election season, which means we’re likely to hear a fair amount of “tough on crime” talk from candidates trying to shore up their law-and-order credentials. But what do voters really think about crime and punishment?

A new study by the Pew Center on the States looked at that question, and came away with some interesting results. People want to keep their communities safe, and want criminals held accountable for illegal activities, the study noted. Makes sense. But it’s the third takeaway from the polling that really bears repeating:

Voters believe a strong public safety system is possible while reducing the size and cost of the prison system.

Here are some underlying attitudes that the study identified:

• Crime is a low concern; only 2 percent of voters rate crime or drugs/alcohol as the most important problem facing their state.

• Voters believe the primary purpose of prisons is to protect society (31 percent), followed by rehabilitate (25 percent) and punish offenders (20 percent).

• Voters want offenders held accountable for their actions, especially by ensuring they pay child support (79 percent cite as a high priority) and restitution to their victims (72 percent).

• Most voters feel safe in their communities, but 42 percent believe (mistakenly) that violent crime is up nationally.

• There are big perceptual differences in the way people approach violent and nonviolent offenders. From a series of focus groups we learned there is often considerable empathy expressed for nonviolent offenders and their life circumstances. Participants look for punishments that do not include prison, opting for community service or other punishments. Substance abuse treatment and job training are often considered appropriate.

The fact that two out of five Americans think that violent crime is on the rise made me go look at the FBI’s latest Unified Crime Report, particularly where violent crime is concerned. Here’s a graph of the national trend for the last five years:

And here’s a graph (admittedly for a longer time frame, 2000 to 2009) of the prison population in America, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

It is encouraging that the prison population in America is growing at a much slower rate. But it is still growing, which goes against the fact that violent crime is down. For that matter, property crimes are down too, according to the FBI.

It’s understandable that there might be a slight lag until the prison population begins to reflect the decreasing number of crimes committed. But really, why aren’t there fewer people in prison if there are fewer crimes being committed?

What this new report tells me is that the public’s opinions and attitudes toward crime and punishment are much more nuanced than judges, lawmakers and reporters (including yours truly) give it credit for. Alternatives to lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent offenders seem to have widespread support. With more and more states facing bigger and bigger budget crunches, the amount of money society spends keeping people locked up is going to come into question again and again. (See previous posts here, here, here and here.)

According to the study, voters are more open to cutting prison costs than many other cost-saving (or revenue increasing) measures.

And yet, as I noted earlier, state spending on corrections is growing faster than education spending.

Here’s a list of statements that the poll presented to the 1,200 participants, followed by the percentage of people who strongly agreed and the overall total of people who agreed:

“It does not matter whether a nonviolent offender is in prison for 21 or 24 or 27 months. What really matters is the system does a better job of making sure that when an offender does get out, he is less likely to commit another crime.” (75 percent strongly agree, 91 percent agree overall)

“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.” (66 and 89)

“We have too many low-risk, nonviolent offenders in prison. We need alternatives to incarceration that cost less and save our expensive prison space for violent and career criminals.” (65 and 86)

“Prisons are a government program, and just like any other government program they need to be put to the cost-benefit test to make sure taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck.” (63 and 84)

“There are 5 million offenders who are out of prison and under community supervision. If we are serious about public safety, we need a better system to supervise and track these people.” (64 and 89)

“It does not matter how much it costs to lock up criminals, we should pay whatever it takes to make sure our communities are safe.” (40 and 64)

“Parole and probation are just a slap on the wrist and not a substitute for prison.” (26 and 45)

So the next time a public official promises to get tough on crime, it might be worth asking him or her about what alternative ways of dealing with nonviolent offenders he or she supports.