By Michael Jonas
Massachusetts residents strongly support reform of the state’s criminal justice system, including elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and education programs than incarceration, according to a new poll.
Two-thirds of residents said prevention programs for youth and job training and education for inmates should be higher priorities in addressing crime than longer prison sentences or putting more police on the streets, according to the poll released Thursday by MassINC, a nonpartisan Boston-based think tank focused on Massachusetts public policy issues. MassINC is the publisher of CommonWealth.
More than half of respondents — 53 percent — said they think those released from prison will be more likely to commit new crimes because of their time behind bars, while only 27 percent thought they would be less like to.
Just 8 percent of registered voters said mandatory minimum sentences were the best way for judges to deal with those convicted of crimes, while 46 percent favor allowing judges to use their discretion in sentencing, within certain guidelines, and 41 percent favor giving judges complete leeway to determine the most appropriate sentence on a case by case basis.
“Voters are interested in reforms across the system – in everything from sentencing to what happens in prison to what happens after prison,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, which conducted the survey. “On a variety of issues, they are ready to try something other than what we’ve been doing.”
The poll comes as state leaders are preparing for a major debate on criminal justice reform. Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill earlier this year that would provide more services for inmates while incarcerated and expand the population of inmates who could cut time off their sentences through “good time” credits or by participating in prison programs. The legislation was shaped by the findings from an outside review of state criminal justice policies conducted by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments.
There is broad support on Beacon Hill for the bill, but there are also calls in the Legislature for more sweeping reform. Senate President Stan Rosenberg and the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Will Brownsberger, have both said they’d like to see lawmakers tackle initial sentencing policies for those convicted of crimes and other issues. A group of House members recently signaled their intent to also push this session for broader reforms.
Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have been much more reserved, giving little indication whether they are open to changes beyond those in the bill the governor filed. If anything, Baker has appeared to hint at reluctance to consider loosening sentencing laws, remarking on several occasions that Massachusetts has among the lowest incarceration rates of any state.
Two-thirds of voters in the new poll say drug use should be treated more as a health problem, while 24 percent favor treating it more as a crime.
That sympathetic view toward addiction does not extend to crimes those addicted to drugs might commit. Just over half of those polled said addicts who sell drugs to other users should go to prison, 64 percent said addicts who break into a home should be incarcerated, and 71 percent favored prison for addicts who sell drugs while armed with a knife or gun.
Voters were divided on the idea of pulling back on court fees charged to those after their release from prison. Half of those surveyed said they favored waiving the fees for those are unable to pay them, while 43 percent percent did not.
The survey also asked voters about their experience as victims of crime. Half of respondents said they or a family member had been a victim of crime, but they were no less likely to support reforms than those who had not been a victim.
The poll results tracked closely with those found in a 2014 survey by the MassINC Polling Group. Koczela said there was no evidence that Massachusetts voters have turned against criminal justice reform in the wake of President Trump’s reference in his inaugural address to the “American carnage” of dangerous streets or calls from Attorney General Jeff Sessions for harder line policies on crime.
The poll results will be presented — along with two new research reports on criminal justice — at a MassINC forum on Monday in Boston.
The survey was based on interviews with 754 registered voters across the state. It has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
There were differences among Democrats and Republicans, but they were not large. While 8 percent of Republicans favor maintaining mandatory minimum sentences, for example, 6 percent of Democrats support the policy. On the question of how to handle those addicted to drugs, 73 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans say it should be dealt with more as a health problem than a crime.