Majority of Americans believe role of jails should not be to punish

New poll finds most Americans support treatment and rehabilitation as the most appropriate response to non-violent offenses

hands gripping bars on a jail cell

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— At a time of national debate about incarceration and law enforcement, a new nationwide poll on perceptions of jails and local criminal justice systems reveals that most Americans believe the role of jails should not be to punish, and shows broad support for treatment and rehabilitation—particularly for people committing non-violent offenses and for those with serious mental illness.

The study was conducted by RTI International and Zogby Analytics with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. RTI developed the survey instrument and conducted independent analyses. Zogby Analytics administered the online survey completed by more than 3,000 respondents nationwide in December 2016. Respondents were asked about crimes that did not involve violence, a sexual offense, or significant property loss.

“Our findings reveal the difference in how local justice systems operate versus how Americans believe they should function,” said Matthew DeMichele, research public health analyst at RTI and coauthor of the study.

For example, only 13 percent of Americans are aware that three out of four people in jail are there for non-violent offenses such as traffic, property and drug offenses. Today, there are nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year—almost 20 times the number of prison admissions—mainly for people awaiting trial or serving short sentences following conviction.

Key findings:

• 62 percent of Americans believe that “rehabilitating or treating the person” is the most appropriate response to non-violent offenses, as opposed to “punishing the person for committing the crime” or “keeping the person off the street so they can’t commit more.” Support for rehabilitation rises to 74 percent for non-violent offenses by those who suffer from mental illness.

• Except for the most serious crimes, more than three-quarters of Americans believe the most appropriate sentence for an offense by a person with a mental disorder should not involve jail time. People see alternatives to incarceration—such as treatment or rehabilitative services, probation, or community service—as the best option in these cases.

• Only 18 percent of Americans believe the role of jails for people who receive convictions should be to punish. Nearly twice that number (33 percent) say the role of jails should be to prevent people from committing future crimes through treatment or rehabilitation.

• Only 14 percent of Americans believe that individuals arrested for non-violent offenses, whose alleged crimes do not involve significant property loss, should be held in jail while awaiting trial.

• 28 percent of Americans believe their local criminal justice systems are “somewhat unfair” or “very unfair.”

• More than two-thirds of Americans believe that risk to public safety should be the main factor in determining release for people awaiting trial, not their ability to pay bail or other fees.

• 74 percent of Americans who are familiar with pretrial services support their use. Pretrial services are procedures that determine the immediate risk a defendant poses to the community, make recommendations concerning the conditions under which that person could be released from jail while awaiting trial, and supervise defendants who are released from custody while awaiting trial.