Poll: Texans support rehab over prison for low-level offenders

Grits for Breakfast

The Texas Public Policy Foundation released the results of a poll yesterday gauging public opinion re: rehab vs. prison for low-level drug and property offenders. Here’s how the Statesman’s Mike Ward summarized the results:

Texans by a wide margin support more treatment and rehabilitation programs for non-violent lawbreakers instead of prison time, a new poll showed Monday, the latest indication of a significant about-face by voters on the issue in recent years.

The poll commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports prison reforms, showed 84 percent of all likely voters contacted favor alternative-to-prison programs for non-violent drug offenders — including 81 percent who identified themselves as Republican, 89 percent as Democrat and 86 percent as independent.

Support was nearly as high among likely voters for putting more low-level offenders on strict probation programs, for allowing them the “opportunity to rehabilitate their behavior,” even for letting them pay restitution to their victims for non-violent offenses — all before they are sent to prison.

Twelve percent of all likely voters who were polled said they opposed sending more offenders to drug-treatment programs instead of prison, a much lower number than similar previous polls.

The group surveyed 1,001 likely voters in Texas and said the findings had a 3.1 percent margin of error.

In a column at the Statesman, TPPF’s Sarah Rumpf elaborated on the findings:

For example, 79 percent of Texans favor sending nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison, and analyzing the responses by party affiliation, 81 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of independents are in support. Looking at ideological and demographic classifications, 80 percent of conservatives, 90 percent of moderates and 89 percent of liberals support the reforms, as do 84 percent of white voters, 80 percent of Hispanics and 90 percent of African-Americans.

The poll also illustrated strong backing for other criminal justice reforms we support. By more than a 2 to 1 margin (62 percent to 27 percent), Texans believe spending money on education and treatment programs is more effective than building more prisons. Likewise, 77 percent agree that before nonviolent offenders are sent to prison, they should have the opportunity to rehabilitate their behavior, and 82 percent believe they should have the opportunity to repay their victims for any damages caused by their crimes.

Go here to see the complete poll and all the crosstabs. Perhaps most remarkable is the sea change in the public’s values and priorities as it relates to criminal punishments. Asked what should be the most important factor for the criminal justice system to focus on when dealing with nonviolent criminals, respondents answered:

  • Rehabilitate the criminal: 35%
  • Punish the criminal: 30%
  • Make payments to victims for damages caused by their crimes: 23%
  • Send a message to would-be criminals: 8%
  • Unsure/Don’t know/Refused: 4%

Even a decade ago, punishment would have overwhelmingly been the highest priority. Back when I worked with ACLUTX, we commissioned a strategic, internal poll on similar topics to help develop messages promoting legislation – which passed in 2003 (HB 2668 by Ray Allen) – to mandate probation on the first offense for less-than-a-gram drug offenders. At the time, the results weren’t nearly as favorable for reform (though we were able to identify messages that helped change people’s views). Public opinion has shifted significantly since then.

To me, the results are even more startling because of persistent misperceptions by the public about crime trends in Texas. Reported crime has consistently fallen statewide in recent years, but when asked if they thought crime had gone up, down, or stayed the same in their community, 30% thought it had gone up, 45% thought it had stayed the same, and only 18% correctly believed it had declined. IMO that’s a function of failures by the MSM, which have come to sensationalize crime for its entertainment value instead of reporting it accurately and honestly, in context. Local TV news is the worst, but it’s really true across the board. It’s particularly remarkable that the public has moved away from a punishment-first mentality to more of a rehab focus when they remain consistently misinformed about the nature and frequency of crime in their communities.

It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will act on these issues. Texas has the largest state prison population in the country – larger even than California, though we have less than two-thirds of their population. After taking a first cut at de-incarceration reforms in 2007 aimed at strengthening probation and funding alternatives to incarceration, the Lege for the most part failed over the next three sessions to continue down the path implied by these shifts in public opinion. As Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business told the Statesman, “The people are ahead of the politicians on this.”