Both in Massachusetts and nationally, public opinion is changing on how drug use is handled by the criminal justice system. According to our recent polling on criminal justice issues, Massachusetts residents are far more inclined to see drug use as a health problem (64 percent) rather than a crime (24 percent). Similarly, they would prefer to send drug users to treatment rather than incarceration, with 83 percent saying treatment would be effective at reducing crime. And more thought this approach would be “very effective” (47 percent) at reducing crime than when a similar question was asked in a 1997 MassINC poll (33 percent).
A new poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center reveals that, on this issue, attitudes here essentially mirror national opinion. From the Pew study:
“The public appears ready for a truce in the long-running war on drugs. A national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 67% of Americans say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Just 26% think the government’s focus should be on prosecuting users of such hard drugs.”
This view appears to be part of a long term shift in views on a variety of drug issues. There is more tolerance of marijuana use, and three quarters now believe it will eventually be legal across the county. Here at home, supporters of legalization now narrowly outnumber opponents, a shift from even late last year.
On the issue of sentencing, only 11 percent say mandatory minimum sentences are the preferred sentencing mechanism when presented with three options. Far more prefer judges either use sentencing guidelines (44 percent) or determine sentences on a case-by-case basis (41 percent). This marks an apparent departure from MassINC’s 1997 poll, when large majorities viewed a variety of mandatory sentences as effective in reducing crime.
Looking at drug users specifically, 78 percent of Massachusetts residents were open to early release for drug users, while just 18 percent thought they should serve out their entire sentences. This also appears to conform with national trends. Nationally, 63 percent say the recent shift away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug users is a good thing, while 32 percent say it is a bad thing. This represents a considerable shift since 2001, when opinion on the issue was nearly evenly split.