Most Americans dissatisfied with current
A new poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties
Union released on July 19, 2001 reveals a strong dissatisfaction
with the current state of the criminal justice system in the
United States and a growing public confidence in rehabilitation
and alternative punishments for non-violent offenders.
"Contrary to uncritical popular belief, punishment and retribution
are not foremost in most Americans' minds," said Nadine
Strossen, President of the ACLU. "In fact, this new study
shows our nation to be far more concerned with rehabilitation
and social reintegration than with throwing away the proverbial
Of particular interest are the encouraging public attitudes about
drugs and drug crimes revealed in the study. According to the
poll, a majority of U.S. citizens draw sharp distinctions between
trafficking in illicit narcotics and other drug offenses. While
a majority believes that drug dealers should always be sent to
prison, far fewer agree that users (25 percent), minor possessors
(19 percent) or buyers (27 percent) should always be locked up.
"I'm sure that the nation's new drug czar would be surprised
to learn that, in reality, a majority of people have come to
realize that we cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem,"
Strossen said. "Our findings shine a glaring spotlight on
the misdirection of the drug war over the last two decades."
The public's recognition of the misdirection of the drug war
and the race to incarcerate, ACLU researchers said, is also reflected
in the finding that a majority (61 percent) opposes mandatory
sentences that require an automatic sentence (with no opportunity
for earned release) for non-violent crimes.
Federal and state policies do not yet reflect the popular attitude
in daily conversations brought out in the main findings of the
poll. Specifically, the poll shows that lawmakers and prosecutors
should begin taking into account that a majority of average people
support alternative punishments for non-violent offenders, believe
that rehabilitation is an important goal for the courts and prisons,
and are strongly dissatisfied with the current state of the criminal
November Coalition and many other organizations have questioned
whether our neighbors indeed have a lock-'em-up mentality, and
the ACLU's survey is the first to empirically demonstrate from
national opinion-sampling methods that this is not an accurate
"Politicians used to be able to score votes by placing as
many people behind bars as possible and treating them as poorly
as possible," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU's
Washington National Office. "This poll suggests that times
have changed. When inmates are freed, the public wants to see
productive and well-adjusted members of society, not seasoned
graduates of an Academy for Hardened Criminals."
Prominent in the polling results is surprising support for and
emphasis on rehabilitation for non-violent offenders. According
to the poll, six in ten US citizens believe that it is possible
to rehabilitate a non-violent offender; four in ten believe the
main purpose of prison is rehabilitation, rather than deterrence,
punishment, or the protection of society.
The study also found strong public support for changing the current
laws so that fewer non-violent offenses are punishable by prison
(62 percent). In particular, those polled showed enthusiasm for
alternatives for non-violent offenders such as mandatory education
and job training (81 percent), compensation to victims (76 percent)
and community service (80 percent).
The poll also studied society's views on education and skills
training for offenders and showed very strong support for providing
prisoners with skills training in prison (88 percent).
"In many states, more money is spent on locking up non-violent
offenders than on higher education," Murphy said. "It
is particularly encouraging to see public recognition that prison
cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of U.S. justice."
"It is important to note that the poll does not show people
to be lenient toward crime," said Kate Stewart, Partner
at Belden, Russonello & Stewart. "Rather, it reveals
that while many citizens demand immediate consequences for criminal
activity, they also believe that the punishment should fit the
crime. Accordingly, most do not think that prison is always the
most appropriate answer to non-violent crime."
Only a very small minority of poll respondents believes punishment
(two in ten) or deterrence (one in ten) to be the main role of
the courts or prisons.
The survey also shows that most citizens believe that prisons
are largely failing in their rehabilitative mandate (six in ten).
The poll therefore demonstrates, say ACLU officials, that many,
many people are dissatisfied with the status quo and favor decisive
reforms of the criminal justice system that will render it more
practical, more realistic and more responsive to current social
The private firm Belden, Russonello & Stewart (BRS) conducted
the ACLU study. The polling firm conducted telephone interviews
during January of 2001 with 2,000 adults randomly selected across
the U.S. The margin of sampling error for the entire survey is
plus or minus 2.2 percentage points at the 95 percent level of
For more information online: http://www.aclu.org/features/f071901a.html