Voters See Prison Contributing to Recidivism, Support More Aggressive Criminal Justice Reforms
BOSTON – Massachusetts voters strongly favor judicial discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing and broadly support more aggressive reforms to the criminal justice system than are now being considered by legislators, a new MassINC poll shows.
The poll and two new policy research reports on the state’s criminal justice system will be discussed at the annual Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Summit, Monday May 15, 8:30-11:30 AM at the Omni Parker House in Boston. The summit brings together 300 leaders from around the Commonwealth interested in comprehensive reform. Speakers include Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Congresswoman Katherine Clark, and Marc A. Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice & Right on Crime.
“Massachusetts voters across the political spectrum see the need for major change to the criminal justice system,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, which conducted the poll. “This poll finds strong support for a range of reforms among Republicans, Democrats, and independents.”
By a nearly two-to-one margin (53 percent to 27 percent), voters think Massachusetts prisons currently do more harm than good, making inmates more likely to commit new crimes rather than preventing future crime. A plurality (42 percent) think there are too many people in prison in Massachusetts, while 23 percent say the number is appropriate. Just 10 percent say there are not enough.
Prisons are just one of component of the criminal justice system where voters support major changes. Voters see potential improvements from the front end, before sentencing, to the back end, after former inmates are released.
The biggest policy change explored in the poll focuses on reforming sentencing practices. As MassINC found in a 2014 poll, very few say mandatory minimum sentencing is preferable to giving judges more discretion in sentencing. Just 8 percent of voters prefer mandatory minimums, including 6 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of Republicans. This discomfort with current sentencing policy was one of many similarities between this wave of polling and the 2014 MassINC poll. The new poll found no apparent change due to the national political climate or an increased focus on crime and public safety.
On a key issue affecting sentencing, 60 percent said the state’s felony threshold should be raised to $1,500 from its current $250 level while 36 percent opposed the change. Massachusetts has the third-lowest threshold in the country, and has not raised the dollar amount in decades.
Voters also see room for considerable change in focus in prisons. They rate job training for inmates as the most effective way of preventing future crimes, followed by education and connecting inmates with community groups as their release date approaches. Around 9 in 10 voters say each of these would be effective in reducing future crime.
After release, voters support changes that would allow former prisoners to move on with their lives more quickly. Sixty-two percent support for sealing misdemeanor records after 3 years instead of 5, and 65 percent support for reducing the time to seal a felony record from 10 to 7 years. By a narrower margin (50 percent to 43 percent), voters say former inmates should not be responsible for supervision fees if they cannot afford them.
“Reform is on Beacon Hill’s agenda. This poll shows voters would support the state legislature taking a broad comprehensive approach to reform,” said Ben Forman, Research Director for MassINC. ”The other research we’ll be discussing at the event further makes the case for going big in reforming the criminal justice system.”
These findings are from a new MassINC poll of 754 registered voters in Massachusetts. The MassINC Polling Group oversaw the poll, which was conducted from April 27 to May 1, 2017 using live telephone interviewers and registration-based sampling.
ABOUT MASSINC: The Massachusetts Institute for the New Commonwealth (MassINC) is an independent think tank and the publisher of CommonWealth magazine. Our mission is to stimulate nonpartisan debate, shape public policy and advance a public agenda that supports the growth of the middle class. MassINC’s achieves its impact through independent research, journalism and civic forums that promote jobs and economic security, sustainable communities, and government accountability.
ABOUT THE MASSINC POLLING GROUP: MPG is a full-service survey research company offering public opinion research to public, private, and social sector clients. We offer the highest quality research products based on the very best research methodologies and the most rigorous analysis. Our partnership with WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, is the longest and most successful media polling relationship in Massachusetts. Our reputation for excellence and accuracy gives our research a high level of trust in the policy community.