Americans want prison reform. But do Trump and Sessions?

February 16, 2018

Findings of a poll released on February 13 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation suggest that there is widespread public support for rehabilitation efforts in local criminal justice systems—as opposed to an emphasis on prosecution and punishment.

The study, conducted on behalf of the foundation by RTI International and Zogby Analytics, is just among the latest to show that Americans are generally in favor of  reforms such as reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders, which, in the past, have received bipartisan backing from elected officials.

However, these efforts remain large unsupported by current Attorney General Jeff Sessions and, until recently, they have not received more than lip-service from President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration has reduced support for prisoner halfway houses, according to a recent Reuters report, by cutting contracts with several facilities that operate as re-entry centers for inmates nearing release to help them transition back into the community. This move raised enough concern among legislators— including  Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), John Cornyn (R-TX), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Rob Portman (R-OH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Al Franken (D-MN), and Brian Schatz (D-HI)—to send a bipartisan letter expressing concern last October 27 to leaders of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons

“We believe that these changes in programming and personnel will compromise public safety, decrease inmate accountability, and lead to increased recidivism rates,” the Senators wrote.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year rescinded an Obama administration order that called for a reduction in the federal government’s use of private prisons, which were found to be less safe than government-run facilities. Sessions also called last year for federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest penalties possible for offenders, even for nonviolent drug offenses.

It was only in his State of the Union address last month that President Trump showed interest in rehabilitation, the foundation notes, saying that “This year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”

However, “that line stood in stark contrast to Trump’s past rhetoric and the administration’s tough-on-crime policy efforts,” the foundation noted in a public statement

The survey released by the MacArthur Foundation—a private organization that supports grants in a variety of policy areas—found that Americans support rehabilitation efforts for people in early phases in the justice system, particularly for those with mental illnesses, and backed treatment over prosecution in response to the opioid crisis.

Among the specific findings:

  • 60% of respondents said they believed the most important consideration when sentencing someone for a nonviolent crime was rehabilitation or treatment; only 23 percent said punishment.
  • 35% of respondents — a plurality — said they felt that the main role of jails was to prevent crime by providing treatment or services to inmates so that they develop skills that will help them avoid criminal activity. The second-most-popular response (23%) was that the purpose of jail was to prevent crime by removing people who had been convicted of crimes from the community.
  • 71% of respondents said rehabilitation or treatment is the most important consideration when sentencing someone who has been convicted of a nonviolent crime and has a mental illness.
  • A large majority (84%) of respondents said local governments should devote resources to providing substance abuse treatment to drug users; 52% said more resources should be devoted to prosecuting and jailing users.

Outside of Washington, criminal justice reform efforts that have been undertaken by states over the past decade, the foundation pointed out.

Since 2007 to 2016, 33 states have changed their sentencing and corrections policies through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership with the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Pew Charitable Trusts and several other organizations, according to a report from Pew.

Research contact:  @kathryncasteel

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