At the same time as punitive sentiment is ebbing, the public is showing considerable support for rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration. Criminologist Angela J. Thielo has pointed out that this is not a new phenomenon:
Research for more than three decades has shown that although punitive, the American public also supports rehabilitation as a core correctional goal, [along with] prison rehabilitation programs, reentry services, community alternatives, juvenile treatment, and early intervention programs.47
Recent public opinion research shows widespread support for rehabilitation. Thielo and several colleagues conducted a survey of Texas voters in 2013 to gauge support for reforms, some of which had already been enacted by the state legislature.48 Because of its comprehensiveness and the fact that respondents are from a conservative state known for its punitive sentiment, this research is worth describing in some detail. Survey questions probed the following issues:
- Participants were asked to choose what should be the most important priorities for the criminal justice system to focus on when dealing with nonviolent criminals
a. Rehabilitate the criminal.
b. Make payments to the victims for damages caused by their crimes.
c. Punish the criminal.
d. Send a message to would-be criminals.
- Respondents were asked about their attitudes toward the sanctioning of different types of offenses and were asked to choose between the two following statements:
a. Some people say that regardless of the crime committed, we should send all criminals to prison to help send a signal that Texas doesn’t take crime lightly.
b. Other people say that some criminals who are facing a first-time or low- level offense shouldn’t automatically be sent to prison, thus probation and treatment programs would produce better results.
- Participants were asked to indicate which of two statements they agreed with more when considering the sanctioning of repeat criminal behavior:
a. Some people say that we should spend more money on our prison system so that repeat criminal offenders can be kept away from the public longer.
b. Other people say that we should spend more money on funding effective education and treatment programs so that people leaving prison don’t commit new crimes.
- Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with four specific alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders:
a. Nonviolent offenders should have the opportunity to rehabilitate their behavior before facing the prospect of prison time.
b. Drug offenders who are not drug traffickers should be placed on probation and receive drug treatment instead of being sent to prison.
c. Nonviolent offenders should have the opportunity to repay their victims for any damages caused by their crimes before being sent to prison.
d. The cost of imprisoning a nonviolent offender should factor into decisions about whether to send him or her to prison.
- Participants were asked the following: As you may know, Texas reformed its criminal justice system so that nonviolent drug offenders found guilty of drug possession but not drug trafficking are more likely to be sent to a drug treatment program instead of prison. Based on what you know today, would you say that you support (or oppose) the criminal justice system reform?
The results of the survey demonstrated that Texans support rehabilitation as a correctional goal. In fact, rehabilitation was the leading choice of possible goals, selected by more than a third of the sample.
Figure 9. Source: Thomas Baker, et al.49
Given a choice between prison and “probation and treatment programs” for “first-time nonviolent offenders,” an overwhelming majority (77 percent) chose the treatment option. Even when the offender was described as a “repeat criminal offender,” a majority of respondents (62 percent) said they would rather spend money on “funding effective education and treatment programs” rather than spend money on the prison system to keep repeat offenders away from the public for longer periods. Responses to the set of four alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders were also lopsided, with between 65 and 85 percent in agreement. Even majorities of conservative Republican white males approved of the four alternatives to incarceration. The researchers concluded that “taken together, these findings indicate that substantial consensus exists in Texas favoring the use of alternatives as opposed to prison for nonviolent offenders.”
Other state surveys produced similar results, confirming the finding that the American public now supports approaches based on prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration:
- Seventy-two percent of Virginia voters agree that “judges should have more freedom to use forms of punishment other than prison such as civil or community service.” By a 3 to 1 margin, they support reinstating a parole system. And 80 percent of Virginians believe people with felony records should have the right to get work certification licenses after their release.50
- Sixty-nine percent of Kansans believe that rehabilitation is the top priority for juvenile offenders, and 67 percent believe that “getting juvenile offenders treatment, counseling and supervision to make it less likely they will commit another crime, even if that means they spend no time in a correctional facility” is more important than making sure they “receive real punishment.”51
- Seventy-five percent of Louisiana voters agree that “money spent on locking up nonviolent offenders should be shifted to other, more locally focused programs” including 50 percent who agree strongly. Ninety-one percent say more rehabilitation and job training programs are needed so offenders can better reenter society after their sentence, and 67 percent support “fair chances” hiring practices that ban the box on job applications, giving those with a criminal record a better chance at securing employment.52
Widespread support for prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration indicates that the idea that people can change and deserve a second chance is a core belief, and one survey asked this question explicitly. In a national survey of voters commissioned by the ACLU, respondents were asked which statement they agreed with more:
“People who have committed serious crimes can turn their lives around and move away from a life of crime with the right kind of help.”
“People who have committed serious crimes are unlikely to change and will almost always be a danger to society.”
The first statement was preferred by a 2 to one margin, 59 percent to 31 percent.53
47 Thielo, op cit.
48 Thielo, op cit.
49 Thielo, op cit., p. 20. See also Thomas Baker, et al., “Examining Public Preferences for the Allocation of Resources to Rehabilitative Versus Punitive Crime Policies, 2015, Criminal Justice Policy Review 26(5) 448-462. A national survey conducted in 2009 asked respondents to decide whether their state criminal justice system, not just prisons, should focus more resources on punitive or rehabilitative measures. Thirty-one percent preferred “prevention through intervention,” 20% preferred “skills and employment training,” 28% preferred “punishing offenders,” 11% preferred “treatment,” and 9% preferred “arresting offenders.”
50 Charles Koch Institute and Prison Fellowship survey conducted by Survey Sampling International, December 2015, https://www.prisonfellowship.org/about/advocacy/legislation/state-issues/virginia/.
51 The Mellman Group & Public Opinion Strategies, “Kansas Survey Key Findings On Juvenile Corrections Issues, February 23, 2016.
52 Red Oak Strategic, “Overwhelming, Broad, and Extensive Support Across Party, Ideology and Demographics for Criminal Justice Reform in New Louisiana Survey Findings,” November 29, 2015.
53 Benenson Strategy Group, “Research on voters’ attitudes towards violence in the criminal justice system,” January 10, 2016.