PUBLIC OPINION AND THE POLITICS OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

During the 1980s and 1990s, it was believed that politicians backed away from supporting rehabilitation and prevention-style approaches to crime control because they feared a public backlash. That is, politicians believed that the public supported harsh punishment, viewed rehabilitation as “soft on crime" and would vote against any politician who failed to parrot the “get tough” message (Beckett, 1997). Despite the ubiquity of this rhetoric, studies of public opinion about criminal justice have always painted a more nuanced picture. While many Americans do express strong support for harsh punishment, like long prison sentences or the death penalty, they also express strong support for crime prevention, rehabilitation, and programs designed to help former inmates get back on their feet. In fact, many studies find that a larger percentage of respondents supports rehabilitation and prevention programs than tough punishments (Cullen, Cullen, & Wozniak, 1988; Cullen, Pealer, Fisher, Applegate, & Santana, 2002; Duffee & Ritti, 1977; Johnson, 1994; Riley & Rose, 1980).

Public support for prevention and rehabilitation appears to extend to fiscal judgments, as well. In an innovative study, Cohen, Rust, and Steen (2006) asked a sample of respondents from across the United States to imagine that they were their town’s mayor and to distribute tax money between funding prisons, drug treatment for nonviolent offenders, prevention programs for at-risk youth, hiring more police, or supporting none of the policies and instead giving residents a tax refund. They found that respondents chose to allocate the most money toward prevention and treatment programs, followed by supporting the police and lastly giving a tax rebate. The marginal value allocated to prisons was actually negative, indicating public opposition. Nagin and his colleagues found much the same result in a similar study that specifically focused on juvenile offenders (Nagin, Piquero, Scott, & Steinberg, 2006). Their respondents chose to allocate more funding to rehabilitation than to longer incarceration for serious juvenile delinquents, and overall, their respondents were willing to spend the greatest amount of money on early childhood prevention programs.

These findings, which have been consistent since the tough on crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, lead Cullen, Unnever, and their colleagues to conclude that Americans are “pragmatic," centrist, and supportive of a balanced approach to criminal justice that includes punishment, rehabilitation, and crime prevention (Cullen, Fisher, & Applegate, 2000; Unnever, Cochran, Cullen, & Applegate, 2010). Thus, worries that voters would reject rehabilitation or prevention as too “soft on crime" always rested on shaky empirical ground. Today, however, there is particularly little to fear in the form of public backlash against preventive or rehabilitative justice reform. Both violent and property crime rates have declined dramatically since the superpeak in violence of the early 1990s, and the threat of crime is no longer the salient issue it was during the height of the “tough on crime" era. Low crime rates, combined with the overwhelming, inefficient scope and cost of mass incarceration, have prompted many politicians to rethink criminal justice policy today. Rather than being “tough on crime," elected officials and leaders in the criminal justice profession are now discussing ways to be “smart on crime."

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative stands at the forefront and encapsulates the values of the “smart on crime movement." Under the justice reinvestment paradigm, state governments work in concert with the Council on State Governments to reform their justice systems, reduce the size of their incarcerated populations, generate savings by spending less money on prisons, and reinvest those savings in more cost-effective, evidence-based means of fighting crime and disorder. This emphasis on cost-effective, evidence-based alternatives to incarceration is the heart of the “smart on crime" mantra. Preliminary findings suggest that justice reinvestment is making progress toward its goals in several states (Cramer, Harvell, McClure, Sankar-Bergmann, & Parks, 2014; LaVigne et al., 2014).

Looking at the big picture, now is the time to enact ambitious, evidence-based criminal and juvenile justice reform. Conservative and liberal policymakers across the country are united in their support for such reform to an extent not seen in decades. Now is the time to embrace public support for prevention and rehabilitation and enact the kinds of holistic intervention policies that scholars have found to be the most effective means of reducing violence. Propitious moments in time like this one are unlikely to appear more than once or twice in a lifetime.

 
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