Ready for Reform? Public Opinion on Criminal Justice in Massachusetts

View summary and topline and crosstabs.

This morning we presented the results of a major research project on criminal justice -- four focus groups and a statewide telephone poll of 1,207 Massachusetts residents -- at an event with Gov. Patrick. The project was sponsored by MassINC in conjunction with their 2013 report on the subject. Below is a brief summary of key findings and the slides from this morning's presentation.

1.       Massachusetts residents want the criminal justice system to focus on prevention and rehabilitation – two areas where the current system is not seen as effective


  • Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) think the criminal justice system should prioritize crime prevention or rehabilitation. This and other findings from this poll are largely consistent with national and state polls by the Pew Center for the States, in which majorities favored shifting resources from incarceration towards alternatives.
  • Majorities of Massachusetts residents think the current system is effective at punishing the guilty and ensuring fair trials. On other priorities like rehabilitation and prevention of future crime, effectiveness ratings were considerably lower. The lowest ratings went to rehabilitating prisoners addicted to drugs or alcohol and addressing the needs of mentally ill prisoners.
  • Some parts of the system are seen as counterproductive. Most (59 percent) think released inmates are more likely to reoffend due to being hardened in prison, and 57 percent think inmates reoffend because they lack opportunities and resources upon release.

2.       Two-thirds want reforms that result in fewer people sent to prison, reversing previous high levels of support for new prisons.

  • In 1997, two-thirds supported building a new, 1,000-bed prison, and a majority supported it even after hearing it would cost $100 million. Now, more would prefer reforming the system (67 percent) so fewer people are sent to prison rather than building more prisons (26 percent).
  • Proposals focused on reducing the number of people sent to prison, and improving post-release prospects among current inmates receive widespread support.
Perceived effectiveness of reform ideas

% Very effective

Total effective

Send non-violent, mentally ill people to treatment rather than to prison to keep them separated from hardened criminals



Provide prisoners with job training so they can find work after they are released



Require prisoners who are about to be released to connect with community groups that can help them after their release



Require a period of supervision for all prisoners following their release



Send drug users to treatment rather than prison to keep them separated from hardened criminals



Doing more to prepare inmates for release from prison by gradually moving them to a lower security level in prison, to work-release programs, to half-way houses and the like



Sending only those convicted of violent crimes and dealers of hard drugs to prison, and sentencing those convicted of lesser crimes to probation under close monitoring and control



Getting rid of things like television sets and gyms for prisoners, and concentrating on punishing them for their crimes



Require all prisoners to serve out their entire sentence with no chance of early release



  • Overall, 85 percent support (52 percent strongly) a reform agenda that includes a focus on rehabilitation, increased use of probation, reduced sentences for non-violent criminals and drug users, and reduced reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing. Support for these reforms rises to 91 percent (65 percent strongly) when respondents learn that other states have lowered crime with similar reforms.

3.       Residents show little support for mandatory minimum sentencing.

  • Only 11 percent say mandatory minimum sentences are the preferred sentencing mechanism when presented with three options. Far more prefer judges either use sentencing guidelines (44 percent) or determine sentences on a case-by-case basis (41 percent).
  • This marks a clear departure from MassINC’s 1997 poll, when large majorities viewed a variety of mandatory sentences as effective in reducing crime.

4.       The public sees drug use as a health problem rather than a crime, and seeks an increased focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

  • By more than a 2-to-1 margin, people are more likely to perceive drug use as a health problem (64 percent) than a crime (24 percent).
  • More than four in five (83 percent) think sending drug users to treatment instead of prison would be effective in reducing crime. Drug trafficking is still viewed as a more serious offense, and far fewer would support leniency for those involved.

5.       Concerns about supervision cloud picture of public support.

  • The focus groups conducted in preparation for the poll found residents do not believe the supervision system is effective right now. Participants were sensitive to overworked supervision staff, and questioned whether they could keep up with higher demands stemming from reforms that sent more people into supervised release situations.
  • Just 41 percent of poll respondents are aware that many inmates are released without any supervision at all. In fact, less than a quarter of inmates released from Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities in 2012 received some form of post-release supervision – down from 80 percent in 1980 and 60 percent in 1990.Sentencing

6.       In areas where more inmates are released, residents agree with the broad, pro-reform sentiment of the rest of the state.

  • Because reform will disproportionately impact the ten communities where 49 percent of DOC releases take place, we oversampled these areas to examine residents’ opinion on these issues closely.
  • While some responses varied by a few percentage points, there were no sharp departures or reversals of opinion between these ten communities and the rest of the state. Generally speaking, residents from high-release areas support the overall reform agenda and see the potential benefit of the specific reforms included in the poll.

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