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Californians would rather ease penalties than pay more for prisons

Poll shows a change in attitudes as California seeks ways to comply with court-ordered cuts to its prison population. Soured economy is a key factor.

July 21, 2011|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Overcrowded conditions at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif.
Overcrowded conditions at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif. (California Department…)

Reporting from Sacramento

Cash-strapped Californians would rather ease "third-strike" penalties for some criminals and accept felons as neighbors than dig deeper into their pockets to relieve prison overcrowding, a new poll shows.

In the wake of a court order that the state move more than 33,000 inmates out of its packed prisons, an overwhelming number of voters oppose higher taxes — as well as cuts in key state services — to pay for more lockup space.

The survey, by The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, shows a clear shift in attitude by residents forced to confront the cost of tough sentencing laws passed in recent decades.

The poll canvassed 1,507 registered California voters between July 6 and July 17, about six weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an earlier court order requiring the inmate numbers to be cut. It was conducted by two firms in the Washington, D.C., area: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, a Republican firm. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.52 percentage points.

The ailing economy far outweighs crime as the top concern for most people today, the pollsters said. That, along with the court order, could help explain voters' new receptivity to changes long sought by prisoner-rights advocates:

— More than 60% of respondents, including majorities among Democrats, Republicans and those who declined to state a party preference, said they would support reducing life sentences for third strike offenders convicted of property crimes such as burglary, auto theft and shoplifting.

— Nearly 70% said they would sanction the early release of some low-level offenders whose crimes did not involve violence.

— About 80% said they approve of keeping low-level, nonviolent offenders in county custody — including jails, home detention or parole — instead of sending them to state prisons. The same percentage favors paroling inmates who are paralyzed, in comas or so debilitated by advanced disease that they no longer pose a threat to public safety.

The pollsters noted that people don't generally favor the release of convicted criminals. But "when it comes to prisons," said Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint, "voters are looking for solutions that don't raise taxes or take money from other priorities like education."

Only 12% of respondents said they'd be willing to accept less state spending on healthcare or education to pay for more prisons. And less than a quarter of voters want to pay higher taxes to build prisons or ship inmates to private lockups in other states to comply with the courts.

This year the state plans to spend $9.8 billion on prisons, making it the third-highest general fund expenditure, behind education and healthcare.

"We spend such a large portion of our budget on crime and prison systems, and we get so little for it," said Amanda Hixson, 59, a Democrat from Sacramento.

Politicians determined to burnish their law-and-order credentials try to scare the public about releasing inmates early, Hixson said, "but some guy who's got three pot busts just isn't going to be that terrifying on the street."

Melissa Mason, 60, a Republican from the central California town of Nipomo, was one of the few respondents willing to see the state raise revenue to build more prisons or send inmates out of state.

"I'm not crazy about increasing taxes," Mason said, but offering inmates early release after they've been arrested, convicted and sentenced by responsible authorities "is wrong — it's very, very wrong."

Most others dismissed the idea of higher taxes to pay for additional prison space: 76% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats.

Perhaps the most pronounced divergence of opinion appeared along ethnic lines, on the issue of early releases. More than 70% of white respondents were in favor, compared with 59% of Latinos who supported the idea.

Similarly, 64% of whites said sentences for some three-strikes offenders should be reduced; 50% of Latinos approved.

The pollsters said the split probably reflects a socially conservative tradition among Latino voters more than a concern about personal safety.

"I think it's indicative of an overall world view," said Stanley Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. "It's more of a cultural response — that people who are not socialized and not responsible need to be kept away from people who are more responsible."

The centerpiece of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to address prison overcrowding — shifting responsibility for tens of thousands of low-level inmates to county jails — received overwhelming support from voters in both parties: 81% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans approve.

Under Brown's plan, counties would also assume responsibility for tens of thousands of parole violators currently sent back to state prisons each year, even though they typically spend less than three months behind bars.

More than 70% of Californians approved a 1994 ballot measure creating the three-strikes law, imposing life sentences on previously violent felons who commit even a minor third crime. Voters also have increased the time that inmates serve before eligibility for parole, and they repeatedly have rejected ballot measures that would have reduced sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

Now, California's lockups are so packed that a panel of federal judges in 2006 ruled that the resulting lack of access to healthcare amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The judges said an inmate died every six or seven days from preventable causes.

After the high court affirmed their ruling in late May, the jurists set out a detailed timeline for officials to abide by the order. The first deadline is in November, when the inmate head count must be down by at least 10,000.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.

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