USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll: Californians Willing to Fund Prisoner Rehabilitation to Reduce Overcrowding

September 27, 2013

Poll shows voters favor reducing sentences for low-level offenders, but oppose releasing prisoners if it will harm public safety

Contact: Michelle Salzman Boston at or (213) 821-9311; Suzanne Wu at or (213) 740-0252

September 27, 2013 — California voters favor reducing sentences for offenders who commit nonviolent, low-level crimes in order to reduce the state’s prison population and are willing to pay to provide more rehabilitation programs to prevent them from returning prison, according to results from the latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll.

Sixty-nine percent of Californians said they were willing to use tax dollars to provide more rehabilitation, drug and mental health programs for criminal offenders so that once they serve their time fewer of them will commit new crimes and return to prison. Twenty-seven percent said they oppose the suggestion. Across party lines, support remained firm: Democrats (79-18 percent), voters with No Party Preference (71-25 percent), and Republicans (52-42 percent) were all in favor of rehabilitation programs.

In contrast, voters disapproved of building more prisons or enlarging existing prisons to reduce overcrowding. Fifty-six percent opposed the proposal with 39 percent in favor. That remained true across party lines: Republicans opposed 49-45 percent, Democrats by 57-38 percent and No Party Preference voters by 65-31 percent.

“Californians have made it clear that they don’t want to see criminals let out of prison who might endanger the public’s safety,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “But once they’ve crossed that threshold they’ve weighed in very decisively about a rehabilitation-based approach versus constructing more prisons to alleviate overcrowding.”

For a video of Schnur and Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Megerian discussing respondents’ views on ways to address overcrowding in California prisons, click here.

Conducted September 18-24, 2013, the poll found that 74 percent of voters favor reduced sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders, with 22 percent opposed. Voters also favor early release for low-level, nonviolent offenders by 64-31 percent.

By large margins, California voters prefer to keep more low-level nonviolent offenders in county custody instead of sending them to state prisons: 74 percent favor the proposal and 19 percent oppose. However, voters are split on whether to move some prisoners from state prisons to privately owned prisons in California and other states, with 43 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.

When voters were asked to consider which specific proposal they prefer overall to reduce prison crowding, rehabilitation was their first choice with 42 percent support, followed by reducing sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders (36 percent) and early release (32 percent).

Voters were then presented with a specific plan to ease overcrowding in California prisons that did not include early release of any inmates. The plan that was detailed requested that courts allow the state more time to reduce the prison population to expand rehabilitation services, such as drug and mental health treatment, for inmates. The rationale, pollsters explained, is that with this help, more offenders will stay out of prison once they have served their time and ultimately reduce the prison population.

Voters were also informed that expanding rehabilitation services would initially cost $75 million, and that an additional $240 million would be divided between rehabilitation and the state’s general fund. Without the extra time, thousands of inmates would be moved to privately owned prisons in California and other states, to some county jails or other facilities, which would cost $315 million the first year, paid from the state’s budget.

“Governor Brown made a very smart decision to move away from his original proposal for more prison space and to support Senator Darrell Steinberg’s alternative that emphasizes rehabilitation,” Schnur said. “Not only does this new plan stand a much better chance in the courts, but it clearly enjoys the support of a much larger number of California voters than Brown’s first option.”

Overall, 58 percent of voters approved of this plan with 32 percent opposed. When a split of voters were initially told that the plan was proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown and other state leaders, favor held steady for the proposal with 59 percent in favor and 32 percent opposed. That number changed only slightly when voters were told “some people” proposed the plan; without Gov. Brown’s name attached 56 percent favored the proposal and 33 percent opposed.

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted September 18-24, 2013. The full sample of 1,500 registered voters has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points.

Additional poll results and methodology are available here.


TWITTER: @usclatpoll

About the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll: The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll is a series of statewide public opinion polls in California, designed to survey voter attitudes on a wide range of political, policy, social and cultural issues.

Conducted at regular intervals throughout the year, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll is one of the largest polls of registered voters in the state and has been widely cited, helping to inform the public and to encourage discourse on key political and policy issues.

About USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences: USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is the heart of the university. The largest, oldest and most diverse of USC’s 19 schools, USC Dornsife is composed of more than 30 academic departments and dozens of research centers and institutes. USC Dornsife is home to approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students and more than 750 faculty members with expertise across the humanities, social sciences and sciences.

About the Los Angeles Times: The Los Angeles Times is the largest metropolitan daily newspaper in the country, with a daily readership of 2 million and 3 million on Sunday, and a combined print and interactive local weekly audience of 4.5 million. The fast-growing draws over 10 million unique visitors monthly.