Voters support prevention over prisons, poll says

March 10, 2011

By Daniel Weintraub

California voters think major reforms of the state’s criminal justice system are needed, and they support changes that would focus on prevention and rehabilitation programs targeted at young people, according to a new poll released Thursday.

The survey by Tulchin Research Co. of 601 registered voters found that voters favor prevention more than building more prisons and adopting tougher sentencing laws.

“They don’t have this mentality to lock everybody up and throw away the key,” said Ben Tulchin, who supervised the poll. “They see a need for reform, that the status quo is not working.”

The poll, commissioned by the non-profit California Endowment, was released first at a meeting of political consultants in Washington, D.C. – an indication that its sponsors hope the results will influence the current political and policy mood in the country as well as in California. (The California Endowment was also the initial funder of this web site, HealthyCal.org)

With politicians often fearful of being labeled “soft on crime,” attempts to cut prison budgets or shift money from incarceration to prevention have difficulty gaining traction. Even this year, with the state facing a $26 billion shortfall, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a $200 million increase in the prison budget.

“The voters have very different priorities than the politicians do right now,” Tulchin said.

The clearest point to emerge from the survey was the emphasis on youth.

While 80 percent of voters said either major or minor reform of the criminal justice system is needed, 49 percent said they were most concerned about youth crime, compared to 31 percent who said adult crime was the biggest problem.

And when offered a series of alternative policy approaches, the voters in the survey repeatedly sided with prevention over prisons.

For example, voters were asked which of the following should be a higher priority:

“Build more prisons and youth facilities and pass strict laws to ensure violent offenders are kept of the streets;” or

“invest in ways to prevent kids from taking wrong turns and ending up in gangs or prison and help them stay in school.”

Seventy-six percent said they second statement better reflected their view. Only 14 percent chose the first statement.

Similarly, 55 percent said they “strongly agreed” and 32 percent “somewhat agreed” with the following statement:

“By investing in proven youth violence prevention such as after school programs and job training, we can prevent crime before it happens and save money down the road.”

Tulchin said the survey showed a strong voter preference for prevention programs. This might be somewhat surprising given that 36 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as conservative, while 26 percent said they were liberal and 33 percent were moderates. But the electorate, more than their elected leaders, seems to sense that prevention programs would save money, and make communities safer, in the long run.

The overwhelming preference for prevention over prisons was true among men and women, all ethnic groups, all regions of the state and pretty much across party lines. Even among Republicans, 58 percent said they preferred more prevention programs to building more prisons.

“Voters want to intervene as soon ass possible and give every kid a chance to succeed,” Tulchin said.

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