Transforming the System


A New Sensibility


This report is based on a review of more than 50 public opinion surveys and polls, most of them conducted between June 2014 and June 2016. Many of them are based on state rather than national samples, reflecting the fact that most of the action in terms of policy reform has been at the state level. The research included covers American attitudes towards a range of policy issues that comprise the criminal justice reform agenda.

Findings include the following:

  • Americans are becoming less punitive: After 40 years of public support for harsh criminal justice policies, public opinion research points in the direction of a significant thaw that could, over time, produce a paradigm shift, away from punitiveness and towards prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration as corrections policy goals.
  • Americans support prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration: At the same time punitive sentiment is ebbing, the public is showing considerable support for rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration.
  • Some movement on racial justice: While there is a huge racial divide when it comes to attitudes towards the criminal justice system in general and the police is particular, there has been some progress in the public’s understanding of racial bias.
  • A racial divide in attitudes towards the police is significant: The high-profile police killings of unarmed blacks and the protests that followed generated a spate of public opinion research during 2014–16. The big takeaway is that although these events produced some movement among some white Americans towards a greater appreciation of the systemic racism in law enforcement, the black/Latino-white divide on attitudes towards the police remains deep and wide.

While the overall trends are favorable to change, there are some red flags that advocates should be aware of. They include:

  • The fear factor. Fear of crime and victimization has long been recognized as a driving force behind Americans’ attitudes towards criminal justice policy. In spite of the widely reported drop in the crime rate year after year since it reached its peak in 1994, a majority of Americans believe there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago.
  • The racialization of crime. A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to the ways in which race influences Americans’ attitudes about crime and punishment, and the consensus is that crime in America is racialized, i.e. experienced by whites (and others) in racial terms.
  • The intersection of immigration and criminal justice. Current immigration enforcement, with its emphasis on the identification, arrest, detention, and deportation of “criminal aliens” by local law enforcement, has blurred the line between immigration control and criminal justice. There is evidence that this has affected Americans’ assessment of a “Latino threat” and increased their support for aggressive policing and profiling.
  • The “violent” versus “nonviolent” label. The frequent labeling of crimes as “violent” or “nonviolent” in the public discourse may have created an unhelpful dichotomy in the minds of most Americans that reduces support for sentencing reform.
  • Systemic versus individual causes of crime. There is little recent data on what Americans currently think about the root causes of crime. The question was most recently asked in an explicit way in 2006. At that time, when presented with a list of five possible main causes of crime, Americans favored two individual causes, choosing either drugs or the breakdown of the family as the major factor.


1. Reinforce and expand public support for real reform.

  • Most Americans believe that “people who have committed serious crimes can turn their lives around and move away from a life of crime with the right kind of help.” Build on this belief by publicizing both studies and specific examples of successful reentry and reintegration. Be careful when telling stories of individuals who have come out of prison and given back not to give the impression that this is unique or even unusual. Emphasize that many thousands of formerly incarcerated people who have been offered sound educational and employment opportunities have been successful. Showcase successful, government-funded reentry roundtables and programs, especially those that have been shown to reduce recidivism.
  • Emphasize prevention and define it holistically. Americans support the idea of prevention, but may have a narrow view of what it means. It’s not just evening basketball for “inner city youth.” Healthy communities are safe communities, and healthy communities are communities that have good schools, good jobs, good housing, good health care, etc. That is what effective crime prevention entails. Keep hammering on the link between crime, hopelessness, and lack of opportunity.
  • A majority of Americans believe that “it is important for the country to reduce its prison population” and a plurality of Americans say the main reason is “because sentences are disproportionately severe.” This message should be front and center and repeated as often as possible until it becomes a widely accepted fact. Once the public understands that reducing the length of sentences is critical to ending mass incarceration, support for specific sentencing reforms will be easier to build and sustain.
  • The corollary to the above point is to show through existing credible studies that long sentences do not improve public safety. Studies that have examined the public safety effects of imposing longer periods of imprisonment have consistently shown that harsher sentences have little deterrent effect.1 The same public safety outcomes can be realized with shorter sentences.

2. Proactively tackle problem areas.

  • Keep reminding audiences that the criminal justice system is discriminatory at every stage, from policing through to sentencing and the death penalty. Emphasize the roles of unconscious or implicit bias and structural racism in producing very disparate outcomes for white people and people of color.
  • Change the language. Take care not to use terms like “offender,” “ex-offender,” “ex-convict,” “inmate,” and “ex-felon.” Refrain from describing crimes as “nonviolent” whenever possible. The movement prefers phrases like “incarcerated person,” “formerly incarcerated person,” and “returning citizen.” Use the term “discrimination” rather than “disparities.”
  • Emphasize that mass incarceration is a serious American problem that affects the country as a whole. Invoke the values of fairness, equal treatment, second chance, and community.
  • Conduct more public opinion research on:
    • How to talk about people convicted of serious offenses. The ACLU research cited in this report offers some promising hints at what might work, but more research would be helpful.
    • How to disentangle criminal justice and immigration reform. The deportation of hundreds of thousands of people labeled “criminal aliens” has contributed to the linkage of crime and immigrants in the public discourse. This, in turn, has led to an increase in support for aggressive immigration enforcement. More research would help in developing a communications strategy to overcome this problem.

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