Most Americans dissatisfied with current justice system

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 key."

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 justice system.

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 characterization.

"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 needs.

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 tolerance.

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