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Michael Haugen | February 12, 2016
A new national survey conducted by The Mellman Group & Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Pew Charitable Trusts indicates that public opinions regarding federal sentencing laws, particularly concerning drug offenses, has shifted from the “tough on crime” sentiment of the past towards a more individualized approach that de-emphasizes one-size-fits-all mandatory sentencing. Additionally, they’ve shown that they support, by significant margins, the same sort of criminal justice reforms—e.g. reduced sentences through participation in drug treatment/job training—that enterprising states have adopted in recent years, and that is part of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act currently in the Senate.
According to the four section poll, when told that nearly half of federal prisons are filled with offenders on drug charges, 61% of voters responded by saying “that is too many drug criminals taking up too much space in our federal prison system. More of that space should be used for people who have committed acts of violence or terrorism.”
Conversely, just 35% stated “if that’s the number of people committing federal drug crimes, that’s the number we need to have in federal prisons.” Four percent said they were unsure.
An even higher percentage of voters signaled in the next question that they support judicial flexibility in sentencing for drug crimes versus mandatory terms, with 79% of respondents who found an individualized approach that factors in details particular to each case acceptable, as opposed to the mere 18% who wouldn’t change the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by Congress. This support for judicial flexibility held up even when asked about all criminal cases, with 77% supporting flexibility, as opposed to 19% who found that proposal unacceptable. Three percent said they were unsure which proposal they found agreeable in either situation.
Only a small portion of voters—20%—indicated support for maintaining 10 year mandatory sentences for lower-level drug offenders such as couriers or “mules,” tending to favor such penalties only for the highest leaders or organizers in drug organizations, with 68% showing support for 10 year sentences for these offenders.
About 25% of voters stated that they were supportive of 10 year sentences for street-level drug dealers.
The portion of the poll that received the greatest amount of public support surrounded the use of “good time” credits to shorten the duration of a prison sentence upon participation in, and completion of, proven recidivism reduction programs. Over four in five respondents—86%—would allow federal prisoners to receive sentence reductions of 15% for participation in such programs. Eighty-five percent supported sentence reductions of up to 30%, with 13% not supporting any such reductions.
Voters were also strongly supportive of other reforms, including judicial review of non-violent elderly or terminally ill offenders for compassionate release into community supervision programs, also by four-to-five margins. All told, voters have indicated that they’re prepared to accept reforms to the criminal justice system that would yield greater discretion in federal sentencing guidelines, and an expansion of programs proven at the state level to reduce the likelihood of recidivism. All that remains is for Congress to get the memo.