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California voters favor reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders, poll finds

by Michelle Salzman Boston
A large majority of Californians favor cutting down sentences for low-level offenders, according to results of the latest poll. (Photo/Krystian Olszanski, Flickr)
Photo: A large majority of Californians favor cutting down sentences for low-level offenders, according to results of the latest poll. (Photo/Krystian Olszanski, Flickr)

By large margins, California voters favor reducing sentences for people who commit nonviolent, low-level crimes in order to reduce the state’s prison population, but they oppose releasing prisoners if it will harm public safety, according to results from the latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll.

Conducted on May 27 to June 2, the poll found that 72 percent of Californians favor reduced sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders, with 24 percent opposed. Seventy-four percent of California voters favored keeping those offenders in county custody instead of sending them to state prisons, with 20 percent opposed.

Sixty-three percent of Californians also preferred an early release for low-level, nonviolent offenders, compared to 31 percent who opposed the idea — a slight decrease from a July 2011 USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll that found 69 percent of California voters in favor of early release and 28 percent opposed to the idea.

However, the poll found that voters view public safety as a priority over saving taxpayer dollars. Forty-seven percent of Californians were more likely to agree with the statement: “California should not reduce the state’s prison population because a smaller prison population means more criminals back on the street and increased crime.”

In comparison, 41 percent of voters agreed more closely with the statement: “California should reduce the state’s prison population because a smaller prison population will save taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on other priorities.”

“Voters are very concerned about the cost of public safety and corrections, and they’re eager to find ways to reduce those costs,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “But when push comes to shove, they don’t want to sacrifice their safety in order to save money.”

By a slight majority, California voters were likely to support building more prisons or enlarging existing prisons to cope with overcrowding, with 53 percent of Californians supporting the idea and 42 percent opposed to it. Conversely, Californians were less likely to support paying for other states to house prisoners, with 59 percent of registered voters opposed to the idea and 33 percent in favor.

“Voters have a sense the state’s prisons are already costing them a lot of money, so when it comes to overcrowding measures that require even more spending, such as building new prisons or paying to house inmates out-of-state, they put their foot down,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, part of the bipartisan team with Republican polling firm American Viewpoint that conducted the poll.

When read a pair of statements describing the state of California prisons, voters were evenly split between recommendations for public safety to trump the prison cap versus alleviating prison overcrowding.

Forty-three percent of California voters said that they agreed more closely with the statement, “Some people, including Gov. Brown, say the prison cap should not take precedence over public safety,” and that California has already addressed the prison overcrowding problem by reducing the inmate population by 43,000, improved jail conditions, and that many low-level nonviolent offenders are already being housed in county jails rather than state prisons.

The statement continued: “Some jails are so full that counties have released certain parole violators rather than keep them in custody, so reducing the population further could put dangerous criminals back on the street.”

The second statement, which 44 percent of voters agreed with more strongly, stated that “Some people, including courts, say that California’s prisons are still overcrowded, they are providing unconstitutionally poor medical and mental health care, and violating prisoners’ human rights.” It continued that most prisons are housing more inmates than they were designed for, and that common-sense reform, such as reducing sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes, should be used to reduce the prison population, comply with the Constitution and protect basic human rights.

When queried on the amount of crime in the state, 52 percent of California voters said they thought there was more crime in the state compared to a few years ago, with 32 percent reporting that there was “much more crime” and 20 percent reporting “somewhat more crime.” Twenty-six percent of Californians said they thought there was less crime statewide, with 20 percent reporting “somewhat less crime” and 6 percent reporting “much less crime.”

When polled on the amount of crime in their local area, 46 percent of Californians said they thought there was more crime than a few years ago; 27 percent said they believed there was less crime.

“It’s largely about perception,” said David Kanevsky, research director of American Viewpoint. “People are more in tune with what the level of crime is in their local neighborhood, but what drives their perception is of how bad crime is in the rest of the state is what they see on the news and read in the papers.”

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted on May 27 to June 2. The full sample of 1,500 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Additional poll results and methodology are available here.

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