Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey

Poll: 77% of Americans Favor Eliminating Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences For Nonviolent Offenders; 73% Favor Restoring Voting Rights

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Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have teamed up this year to introduce several bills aimed at reforming the nation's criminal justice system. The latest Reason-Rupe poll finds Americans are receptive to several of the proposed reforms.

77% Favor Eliminate Mandatory Minimums for Nonviolent Offenders

The latest Reason-Rupe poll finds that 77 percent of Americans favor eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis. Seventeen percent oppose this policy change, and 6 percent don't have an opinion.

Support for eliminating mandatory minimums has increased 6 points since the poll first asked this question in December 2013.

Returning sentencing discretion to judges is popular across partisanship, race, age, income, and education. For instance, 81 percent of Democrats support eliminating mandatory minimums, as do 75 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans, including 69 percent of tea party supporters. Similarly, 77 percent of white Americans, 80 percent of African-Americans, and 73 percent of Hispanics favor eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.

73% of Americans Support Restoring Voting Rights

Americans also support restoring voting rights to nonviolent drug offenders who have served their sentences by a margin of 73 to 24 percent.

Restoring voting rights is also widely popular across demographic groups, although Democrats are more supportive. Eighty-one percent of Democrats favor allowing nonviolent drug offenders who have served their sentences to vote and 17 percent oppose. In contrast, 66 percent of non-partisan independents and 64 percent of Republicans agree; 28 and 32 percent oppose, respectively.

Solid majorities across race/ethnic groups agree, but to different degrees. Fully 91 percent of African-Americans support restoring voting rights, compared to 66 percent of Hispanics and 72 percent of Caucasians.

Americans Sharply Divided Over Sealing Court Records

Americans are sharply divided on whether to allow nonviolent drug offenders to petition a court to have their records sealed once they've served their sentences, making them inaccessible to the public without a court order, with 47 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed.

Significant partisan and demographic differences emerge on allowing nonviolent drug offenders to petition a court to have their court records sealed.

Slim majorities of Democrats (53%) and non-partisan Independents (51%) support this reform, but a majority of Republicans oppose (59%). Notably, tea party supporters are no more likely to oppose (54%) than regular Republicans.

White Americans oppose allowing nonviolent drug offenders to petition a court to have their court records sealed by a margin of 53 to 43 percent. Conversely, a majority of black (56%) and Hispanic (64%) Americans favor this reform, while only a third oppose.

Men are slightly more likely to favor than women: 51 percent of men favor, 43 percent oppose; inversely, 43 percent of women favor and 53 percent oppose.

The two youngest generations, Generation X and the Millennials support allowing court records to be sealed, while the two older generations—the Baby Boomers and Silent Generation—oppose. In fact 57 percent of Americans under 45 favor allowing nonviolent drug offenders to petition to have their records sealed and 39 percent oppose. However, by age 45, majorities of Americans begin to oppose this type of reform: 57 percent oppose and 38 percent favor.

Notably, majorities of both white and nonwhite Americans under 45 support this reform (54 and 59 percent respectively). Only white Americans over 45 oppose allowing court records to be sealed, 61 to 36 percent. Older nonwhite Americans are evenly divided at 46 percent.

Politicians may find criminal justice reform to be a winning issue for them going forward for two primary reasons. First, support is relatively stable within age cohorts, meaning that younger Americans support criminal justice reform and will likely continue to do so even as they age. Second, racial differences largely disappear across young white and nonwhite Americans, meaning that support for reform is broadly popular.

More from Reason's Lauren Galik on criminal justice reform, Annual Privatization Report 2014, Criminal Justice and Corrections.

The Reason-Rupe national telephone poll, executed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, conducted live interviews with 1004 adults on cell phones (503) and landlines (501) October 1-6, 2014. The poll's margin of error is +/-3.8%. Full poll results can be found here including poll toplines (pdf)  and crosstabs (xls).