Cut prison numbers, but not by releasing violent criminals

September 23, 2015, 4:44 PM GMT+0

Even people who think too many criminals are locked up balk at cutting sentences for violent criminals

The United States of the early 21st century imprisons more of its own people than any other country in the history of the world, with well over two million Americans behind bars at any given time. For every 100,000 Americans, 716 are in prison or jail, compared to 148 in the United Kingdom and 470 in Russia. This high rate of incarceration is increasingly regarded as a problem by much of the political leadership, as not only does mass incarceration disrupt communities but the prison system itself is a major drain on the taxpayer, as some Republican leaders are beginning to point out. Nevertheless, as the American prison rate climbed rapidly in the 80s and 90s the country's crime rate plummeted.

YouGov's latest research shows that Americans tend to think that the country imprisons too many people. 39% of the public believe that too many criminals are locked up, while 17% think that the right number are and 23% think that too few criminals are behind bars. Democrats (55%) are much more likely than Republicans (21%) to say that too many people are imprisoned.

Attitudes are even more clear cut when people were then asked to compare today's incarceration rate (716 per 100,000) with 1972's incarceration rate (161 per 100,000). 50% of Americans say that the country should aim to reduce its incarceration rate to what it was in 1972, while only 34% oppose cutting prison numbers by around a fifth.

Support for cutting prison numbers is contingent on certain assumptions, however. A large percentage of Americans (66%) believe that significant reductions in America's prison population can be achieved just by reducing or eliminating prison sentences for non-violent criminals.

When it comes to violent criminals, however, even supporters of lower prison numbers are opposed to reducing their sentences. 63% of people who believe that the United States imprisons too many people also say that they would not support efforts to reduce the prison population if violent criminals spent less time in prison.

Opposition to cutting sentences for violent criminals is likely a result of the widespread belief that they already do not spend enough time in prison. 45% of Americans - including 37% who think that too many are imprisoned - believe that violent criminals do not currently spend long enough locked up, while only 7% believe that their prison sentences are too long. When it comes to non-violent criminals 45% of the public believe that their sentences are too long.

Reducing America's prison population significantly, let alone to 1972 levels, is almost certainly impossible without violent criminals spending less time behind bars. In state prisons 54% of criminals are there because of violent crimes while only 6% are regarded as unambiguously being non-violent, low-level drug offenders.

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