Public attitudes on crime are less ferocious than is often assumed: While Americans broadly favor tough punishment for violent felons or repeat drug abusers, they're vastly less apt to favor throwing the book at nonviolent criminals or first-time drug offenders.
Those views are in line with a movement in several states this year to reverse some of their toughest sentencing laws, including long mandatory terms for nonviolent crimes. The trend comes as those states grapple with overflowing prison populations.
Americans do favor tough penalties for the worst crimes: More than eight in 10 adults in this ABCNEWS.com poll support so-called three-strikes laws requiring mandatory life in prison for third-time violent offenders. But for third-time nonviolent offenders, the numbers are reversed, with three-quarters opposing mandatory life terms.
Similarly, two-thirds of Americans favor jail time, rather than treatment programs, for repeat drug offenders. But for first-time drug offenders, the numbers again are reversed: Nearly nine in 10 prefer treatment, not jail.
These numbers don't appear to reflect a change in opinion; public support for get-tough laws long has been focused on violent crimes and recidivist criminals. For example, the same questions on jail or treatment for drug offenders received similar answers when they first were asked back in 1989. (There's been an eight-point increase in support for treatment for repeat drug offenders, but this still remains a distinct minority — 16 percent then, 24 percent now.) And a 1982 poll found broad preference for rehabilitation and restitution, rather than jail, for nonviolent offenses.
Some policymakers appear to be coming to similar conclusions: Strict mandatory sentencing laws have been eased recently in states including Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Dakota. And a voter initiative in California calls for treatment rather than prison for many drug offenders.
Indeed, this poll finds that 36 percent in the West (mainly California) support treatment rather than jail even for people convicted of drug use several times — still well short of a majority, but 15 points higher than it is in the rest of the country. Westerners (again, Californians account for most of this population) also are 10 points less apt to support three-strikes laws for violent offenders.
There are some differences by political affiliation, most prominently in support for treatment, rather than jail, for repeat drug offenders. Thirty-four percent of Democrats support this, compared to 18 percent of Republicans (again, though, it's a minority in each case).
This ABCNEWS.com survey was conducted by telephone Feb. 27-March 3, among a random national sample of 1,025 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.