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Majority of Americans Think U.S. Criminal Justice System is Broken, Ineffective; See Need for Change

NEW YORK—The results of new national research commissioned by the Open Society Institute, part of the Soros foundations network, say that most Americans believe the country’s criminal justice system comprises an ineffective, purely punitive approach to crime.

Three major findings are: Americans want to attack the underlying causes of crime rather than the symptoms; prevention is the nation’s premiere criminal justice goal; harsh prison sentences are being reconsidered as a primary crime-fighting tool, especially for non-violent offenders.

Attacking the Roots of Crime

According to the research, Changing Public Attitudes toward the Criminal Justice System, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, public opinion on crime and criminal justice has fundamentally shifted over the past few years. Today, the public favors dealing with the roots of crime over strict sentencing by a two-to-one margin, 65 percent to 32 percent. This is a dramatic change from public attitudes in 1994, when The Gallup Organization found 48 percent of Americans favored addressing the causes of crime and 42 percent preferred the punitive approach.

This shift has primarily come in the attitudes of those groups that traditionally favored a punitive approach to criminal justice. Today, a solid majority of every demographic group—including men, whites, and people with less than a college degree—support an approach dealing with the causes of crime. Even self-identified Republicans, who favored punishment and enforcement in 1994, now prefer a more progressive approach.

Budget Shortfalls and Prison Spending

And at a time when 42 of the 50 states are running budget deficits, the survey findings could be instructive to legislators. Given a choice of six budget areas that could be reduced to help states balance the budget, the public places spending on prisons at the top of their list, tied with transportation.

Americans would take the budget ax to prisons much more quickly than to childcare for working families, security against terrorism, education and job training, or healthcare. Hispanics and blue-collar workers are among the strongest supporters of cutbacks in prison spending

The War on Drugs

Indeed, another indicator of a paradigm shift in public opinion is the recognition that many nonviolent offenders are receiving prison sentences that are counterproductive and unduly harsh.

By two to one, Americans describe drug abuse as a medical problem that should be handled mainly through counseling and treatment (63 percent) rather than a serious crime that should be handled mainly by the courts and prison system (31 percent). The preference for a medical solution to the drug problem extends to some surprising groups: majorities of fundamentalist Protestants (54 percent) and Republicans (51 percent) believe that drug abuse is best handled by counseling and treatment, not incarceration. According to the research, Americans believe that today’s prisons are no more than "warehouses," providing little or no rehabilitation or reentry programs, that instead simply store criminals for a period of time and then dump them back on the street, no different than when they were first incarcerated.

Changing Views on Mandatory Sentencing

Perhaps the most surprising finding regarding criminal justice policies is the degree to which the public has now turned against previously popular mandatory sentences, such as "three strikes" provisions. This is an area that links together the public’s changing perceptions of rehabilitation and drug policies, and reflects growing doubts about the "lock ‘em up" approach to crime.

Fifty-six percent of adults now favor the elimination of three strikes policies and other mandatory sentencing laws in favor of letting judges choose the appropriate sentence. This represents a substantial shift from the early-and-mid 1990’s, when advocating policies like three strikes was considered a sure political winner.

Prevention is Nation’s #1 Criminal Justice Goal

Americans see prevention as the most important function of the criminal justice system, and also the function that is most sorely lacking. Several groups rank after-school activities ahead of values education as the best way to prevent crime, including Hispanics (37 percent after-school activities, 30 percent values education), 18- to 34-year olds (35 percent, 28 percent), and people with incomes less than $30,000 (36 percent, 31 percent). The preventive measure perceived to be most effective at reducing crime is character education—teaching young people personal responsibility and moral values (37 percent).

Additional key findings of the report include the following:

  • 54 percent of all adults say the nation’s approach to crime is off on the wrong track, while only 35 percent say it is going in the right direction;>
  • Americans are nearly four times more likely to describe the war on drugs as a failure (70 percent) than the 18 percent who say it is a success. This crosses all demographic lines;
  • 77 percent of all Americans believe that expanding after-school programs and other crime prevention programs would save money by reducing the need for prisons;
  • Nearly two-thirds of all Americans agree that the best way to reduce crime is to effectively rehabilitate prisoners by requiring education and job training so that once released, they have the tools to turn away from a life of crime.

These findings are supported by two other criminal justice reform reports released last Thursday, February 7, 2002, that say states are responding to fiscal crises by closing prisons and beginning to reverse the 30-year era of ‘get tough’ sentencing policies. Released separately by The Sentencing Project and The Justice Policy Institute, the studies say the public—in states with previously conservative approaches to public safety—is shifting away from support for imprisonment for nonviolent offenders and now embrace a wide array of prevention, rehabilitation and alternative sentencing approaches.


Beginning in May 2001, six focus groups were held in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast with white swing voters, political professionals and criminal justice professionals.

Hart Research then conducted a nationwide telephone survey of 1,056 adults from September 6-17, 2001. The sample included a representative national cross section of 804 adults, plus oversamples of 101 African Americans and 151 Hispanics. The minority oversamples were weighted to match their incidence in the U.S. population. The survey’s overall margin of error is +3.5 percent, and is higher for specific subgroups.

A large majority of the interviews (863) were conducted before September 11. From November 30 through December 2, 2001, Hart Research conducted a shorter follow-up survey among 1,014 adults to assess whether key attitudes toward criminal justice had shifted since September 11. The survey revealed little or no movement on questions measuring core criminal justice attitudes.

The Open Society Institute, a private operating and grantmaking foundation, is part of the network of foundations, created and funded by George Soros, active in more than 50 countries around the world.

OSI's U.S. Programs seek to strengthen democracy in the United States by addressing barriers to opportunity and justice, broadening public discussion about such barriers, and assisting marginalized groups to participate equally in civil society and to make their voices heard. OSI U.S. Programs challenges over-reliance on the market by advocating appropriate government responsibility for human needs and promoting public interest and service values in law, medicine, and the media, by supporting initiatives in a range of areas.

These areas include access to justice for low and moderate income people; judicial independence; ending the death penalty; reducing gun violence and over-reliance on incarceration; drug policy reform; inner-city education and youth programs; fair treatment of immigrants; reproductive health and choice; campaign finance reform; and improved care of the dying.

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