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Californians willing to fund prisoner rehabilitation to reduce overcrowding

The poll found that a majority of Californians disapproved of building more prisons or enlarging existing prisons to reduce overcrowding. (Photo/Krystian Olszanski, Flickr)

California voters favor reducing sentences for offenders who commit nonviolent, low-level crimes in order to reduce the state’s prison population and are willing to pay to provide more rehabilitation programs to prevent them from returning to prison, according to results from the latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll.

Sixty-nine percent of Californians said they were willing to use tax dollars to provide more rehabilitation, drug and mental health programs for criminal offenders so that once they serve their time, fewer of them will commit new crimes and return to prison. Twenty-seven percent opposed the suggestion.

Across party lines, support remained firm: Democrats (79-18 percent), voters with no party preference (71-25 percent) and Republicans (52-42 percent) were all in favor of rehabilitation programs.

In contrast, voters disapproved of building more prisons or enlarging existing prisons to reduce overcrowding. Fifty-six percent opposed the proposal, with 39 percent in favor. That remained true across party lines: Republicans opposed 49-45 percent, Democrats by 57-38 percent and no party preference voters by 65-31 percent.

“Californians have made it clear that they don’t want to see criminals let out of prison who might endanger the public’s safety,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “But once they’ve crossed that threshold, they’ve weighed in very decisively about a rehabilitation-based approach versus constructing more prisons to alleviate overcrowding.”

Conducted Sept. 18-24, the poll found that 74 percent of voters favor reduced sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders, with 22 percent opposed. Voters also favored early release for low-level, nonviolent offenders by 64-31 percent.

By large margins, California voters prefer to keep more low-level, nonviolent offenders in county custody instead of sending them to state prisons ­— 74 percent favored the proposal and 19 percent opposed. However, voters were split on whether to move some prisoners from state prisons to privately owned prisons in California and other states, with 43 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.

When voters were asked to consider which specific proposal they prefer overall to reduce prison crowding, rehabilitation was their first choice with 42 percent support, followed by reducing sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders (36 percent) and early release (32 percent).

Voters were then presented with a specific plan to ease overcrowding in California prisons that didn’t include early release of any inmates. The plan that was detailed requested that courts allow the state more time to reduce the prison population to expand rehabilitation services, such as drug and mental health treatment, for inmates. The rationale, pollsters explained, is that with this help, more offenders will stay out of prison once they have served their time and ultimately reduce the prison population.

Voters were also informed that expanding rehabilitation services would initially cost $75 million and that an additional $240 million would be divided between rehabilitation and the state’s general fund. Without the extra time, thousands of inmates would be moved to privately owned prisons in California and other states, to some county jails or other facilities, which would cost $315 million the first year, paid from the state’s budget.

“Gov. [Jerry] Brown made a very smart decision to move away from his original proposal for more prison space and to support Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s alternative that emphasizes rehabilitation,” Schnur said. “Not only does this new plan stand a much better chance in the courts, but it clearly enjoys the support of a much larger number of California voters than Brown’s first option.”

Overall, 58 percent of voters approved of this plan, with 32 percent opposed. When voters were initially told that Brown and other state leaders proposed the plan, favor held steady for the proposal with 59 percent in favor and 32 percent opposed.

That number changed only slightly when voters were told “some people” proposed the plan; without Brown’s name attached, 56 percent favored the proposal and 33 percent opposed.

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Californians willing to fund prisoner rehabilitation to reduce overcrowding

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