Despite concerns over prison population, many back prison for lesser crimes

May 05, 2015, 7:33 PM GMT+0

Many Americans say that too many criminals are sent to prison, but large numbers support prison sentences for people convicted of theft and drug dealing

The United States imprisons more of its population than any other country on earth. Over 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, compared to China at just over 1.6 million. America's prison population boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, when lawmakers passed laws allowing for, or even requiring, increasingly harsh sentences for a range of crimes. Since the mid-1990s crime, including violent crime, has dropped massively across the country but the harsh sentences remain. Last week both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama called for reform of the justice system, with Clinton calling for "an end to the era of mass incarceration".

YouGov's latest research shows that large numbers of Americans do think that too many criminals are locked up in prison after they are convicted. Overall, 43% of Americans think that too many people are sent to prison, while 14% think that about the right number are imprisoned and 23% think that too few people are in prison.

Even among the 54% of Americans who incorrectly believe that violent crime has increased in the past 20 years, people are more likely to say that too many (37%) rather than too few (31%) criminals are imprisoned. Among Americans who think violent crime has remained the same, 42% say that too many people are imprisoned and among the 18% of the public who know that violent crime has decreased since the mid-1990s, 67% say that too many people are locked up.

In 2013, 54% of all the prisoners in the United States were convicted of violent crimes such as assault or robbery, while 19% were in prison for committing property crimes such as theft or burglary. 16% are in prison for drug offenses, largely trafficking or distribution. Though the public widely believes that too many people are imprisoned, Americans tend to support prison sentences for people convicted of certain non-violent crimes. Only 3.7% of prisoners were convicted of drug possession.

Most think that alternative sentences, such as probation or mandatory rehabilitation, should be used for people convicted of shoplifting (79%) and drug possession (66%) but tend to support prison sentences for people convicted of theft (48%). Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) support prison time for drug dealers, and large majorities back prison for housebreakers (67%) and people convicted of assault (82%) or sexual assault (93%).

Attitudes towards what crimes should, and should not, incur a prison sentence do not differ significantly according to race. Most white (68%) and black (60%) Americans think that alternative sentences should be handed down to people convicted of drug possession, and that drug dealers should go to prison (63% for both groups).

Asked whether black Americans face tougher sentencing than white Americans, a racial divide emerges. A large majority (78%) of black Americans believe that they face harsher sentencing than whites, while most white Americans (52%) believe that sentences are about the same for whites and blacks. 28% of white Americans do think that black Americans face tougher sentences.

Full poll results can be found here and topline results and margin of error here.