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Massachusetts residents support reforming the criminal justice system to send fewer people to prison, and overwhelmingly (85 percent) support a package of reforms similar to those enacted in other states. In fact, most see the current prison system as a contributor to crime rather than a deterrent: 59 percent think released inmates are more likely to reoffend due to being hardened in prison, compared to just 28 percent who think they are less likely to offend.

Those are a few of the major findings contained in Ready for Reform? Public Opinion on Criminal Justice in Massachusetts,released today by MassINC and The MassINC Polling Group. This full report expands on the findings released at an event with Governor Deval Patrick in February.

“The public sees a broken system that seems to be making some problems worse” said Steve Koczela, President of The MassINC Polling Group. “Voters are looking for a real shift in the way we approach criminal justice in Massachusetts.”

Among the findings contained in the full report:

  • Two-thirds (67 percent) of residents prefer reforming the system so that fewer people are sent to prison over building more prisons (26 percent). This is a major shift since MassINC examined this issue in 1997, when two-thirds supported a new 1,000 bed prison.
  • Residents think reforms like job training and pre-release programs, diverting drug users and the mentally ill to treatment instead of prison, and increasing post-release supervision would be more effective at reducing crime than more punitive measures.
  • By more than a 2-to-1 margin, residents are more likely to perceive drug use as a health problem (64 percent) than a crime (24 percent). Seventy-eight percent would consider early release for drug users, and 83 percent think sending drug users to treatment instead of prison would be effective at reducing crime.
  • 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).

These and other findings are largely consistent with recent national and statepolls by the Pew Center on the States, which found that majorities favor shifting resources from incarceration towards alternatives.

This new survey of Massachusetts residents comes at a time when criminal justice is emerging as political issue, both in the Commonwealth and nationally. At the MassINC event in February, Gov. Patrick unveiled a 5-year plan to reduce recidivism by 50 percent. Last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new guidelines for granting clemency to non-violent drug offenders. And last week the National Research Council released a major report concluding that “the nation should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce imprisonment rates.”

The poll and four focus groups were commissioned by MassINC as a follow-up to its 2013 report Crime, Cost, and Consequences: Is it Time to Get Smart on Crime?, which made the case for Justice Reinvestment, an agenda of evidence-based reforms to lower prison populations and save money while reducing crime.

“Our study from last year and this new national report make it clear that what we’ve been doing in criminal justice is not working,” said Greg Torres, President of MassINC. “This new research on public opinion shows that the public understands that as well. Residents want to see a change.”

About the poll: These results are from a public opinion poll of 1,207 Massachusetts residents conducted January 23-29, 2014. Interviews were conducted by Braun Research, Inc. in English and Spanish using live telephone interviewers. Respondents were reached on both landlines and cell phones. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3.5 percent for the statewide sample. Prior to the poll, MPG conducted four online focus groups, including two with residents from cities most impacted by crime. Additional methodological details for both the poll and focus groups are available in the full report.

This report was made possible through the generous support of the Shaw Foundation, The Boston Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and individual donors.

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