Illinois voters from all political parties favor reducing state prison population

Illinois voters from all political parties favor reducing state prison population

A recent Illinois Policy Institute-commissioned poll finds 4 in 5 registered Illinois voters – including overwhelming majorities of Republicans, Independents and Democrats – support reforms to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders in prison.

In 2015, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner committed to reducing Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025 – a bold undertaking to address a costly system plagued with problems. Illinois had the most overcrowded prisons in the nation as of Dec. 31, 2014, and the state’s annual prison costs reached $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2015. Many of Illinois’ prison admissions have come from lower-level offenders – in fact, 55 percent of the increase in prison admissions between 1989 and 2014 was due to more individuals convicted of Class 4 felonies, the lowest level of felony, and mostly for nonviolent crimes.

Reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in Illinois prisons might make perfect sense from a policy perspective, but how do Illinois voters feel about the goal of reducing the state’s prison population?

According to a recent poll on criminal-justice reform, a large majority of Illinois voters support this objective.

In May, the Illinois Policy Institute commissioned Fabrizio, Lee & Associates to conduct a poll of 500 registered Illinois voters to gauge opinion on criminal-justice reform.

Eighty-three percent of poll respondents support reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in Illinois prisons – including 92 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Independents.

One way to bring down the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders behind bars is to reduce the incarceration time for offenses. So pollsters asked voters whether they viewed sentences for nonviolent offenses as too short, too long or just right.

A plurality of respondents, 39 percent overall, believe sentences are too long. Roughly equal numbers – about one-fifth of respondents – said sentences were just right, too short or that they didn’t know. Responses here did differ somewhat by political affiliation. Democrats and Independents were most likely to say sentences were too long, while Republicans are most likely to think sentences are just right. Male respondents are slightly more likely than females to think sentences are too long.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans are opposed to reform or that politicians can’t be seen as tough on crime while supporting reform. On the contrary, over 80 percent of respondents in all parties think politicians can be tough on crime and support criminal-justice reforms “such as community supervision, mandatory drug testing and treatment programs – instead of prison – that reduce the likelihood the offender would commit a new crime.”

Pollsters also asked how a political candidate’s support for reducing the prison population would factor into a voter’s support for that candidate – and found that 53 percent of respondents are more likely to support such a candidate, while only 9 percent of respondents are less likely.

Responses show that Democrats, Republicans and Independents are all more likely to vote for candidates who support reducing the prison population.

Illinois voters are saying they want something different in criminal-justice policy. Policymakers have a mandate to deliver.

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