Voters Want Big Changes in Federal Sentencing, Prison System

Majority supports broad reforms for drug offenses, national poll finds

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Three-quarters of U.S. voters support ending federal mandatory minimum sentences, according to a new poll released by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The text below was updated on March 8, 2016, to expand on the key findings of the poll.   

Voters across demographic groups and party lines strongly support an array of significant changes to federal criminal justice laws, especially as they apply to drug offenses, according to a poll released in February by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The nationwide survey of 1,200 registered voters, conducted by the Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, found that nearly 80 percent favor ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and that more than three-quarters support eliminating federal mandatory minimums in all cases. 

By wide margins, voters also support other reforms that would reduce the federal prison population. For example, more than 8 in 10 favor permitting federal prisoners to cut their time behind bars by up to 30 percent by participating in drug treatment and job training programs that are shown to reduce recidivism.

Interviews were conducted by telephone Jan. 13-19, 2016, and included both cellphones and landlines randomly selected from official voter lists. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Key poll findings

  • 61 percent of survey respondents believe prisons hold too many drug offenders. Most people want more prison space dedicated to housing “people who have committed acts of violence or terrorism.”
  • Three-quarters support ending federal mandatory minimum sentences. Most participants indicate a strong preference for judicial discretion by the judge based on the facts of each drug offense case.
  • Only 20 percent think lower-level drug offenders should receive the 10-year minimum sentence. Few voters believe that the courts should be required to order people who transport or carry drugs to serve a decade in prison. However, 68 percent say all top-level drug dealers and organizers should receive at least the 10-year minimum prison term.
  • More than 80 percent of survey participants support programs and reforms that reduce prison terms under certain circumstances. Most respondents favor making nonviolent federal offenders who demonstrate productive behavior or are terminally ill eligible to get time off their sentences. 
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