Reduced sentencing for nonviolent criminals: What does the public think?

Partisan politics in Washington has found a new victim: criminal justice reform.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is trying to pass a bipartisan bill that would reduce punishments for less serious, nonviolent crimes. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a few Republican senators are fighting the bill because they believe prosecutors need the threat of long prison sentences to deter crime. Their belief is not shared by many criminologists.

Grassley’s bill reflects reforms that have already happened at the state level: More than two dozen red and blue states, including states as politically different as Texas and Massachusetts, have joined the Justice Reinvestment Initiative over the last 15 years. Under the initiative, sponsored by the Council of State Governments, states have changed their laws to sentence nonviolent offenders to community-based sanctions, like probation or ankle bracelet monitoring, instead of prison.

Spending less money on locking people in prison means states have more to spend on other forms of crime prevention. Investing this money in communities was the original vision of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. However, most legislatures have reinvested money back into the criminal justice system instead.

What does the public think about sentencing reform and investing in communities now?

As a scholar who studies public opinion and the politics of criminal justice, I conducted a public opinion survey to answer this question.

I surveyed white and black respondents to see whether opinions differed across racial groups. Criminal justice is an issue that has long divided Americans by race.

Support for sentencing reform

I asked about 2,000 people to state whether they support or oppose sentencing nonviolent property and drug offenders to community-based punishments instead of prison. Property offenders commit crimes like burglary or theft. Drug offenders commit crimes like drug possession or selling.

I found that a majority of black respondents expressed support for sentencing both property and drug offenders to community-based punishments.

Only between 42 percent to 48 percent of white respondents expressed similar support for community-based punishments. The remaining white respondents expressed opposition or no preference.

Support for community investment

Next, I wanted to know how people think money saved from reducing the prison population should be reinvested.