Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward Truth in Sentencing

I’ve posted a number of times about the interesting results of the Marquette Law School Poll regarding the attitudes of Wisconsin voters toward truth in sentencing and early release from prison (e.g., here and here).  I’ve now finished a more in-depth analysis of the survey data with Professor Darren Wheelock of Marquette’s Department of Social and Cultural Sciences.  Our results are discussed in a new paper on SSRN (available here).  The abstract sets forth a little more of the context and key findings:

In the space of a few short years in the 1990s, forty-two states adopted truth in sentencing (“TIS”) laws, which eliminated or greatly curtailed opportunities for criminal defendants to obtain parole release from prison. In the following decade, the pendulum seemingly swung in the opposite direction, with thirty-six states adopting new early release opportunities for prisoners. However, few of these initiatives had much impact, and prison populations continued to rise. The TIS ideal remained strong. In the hope of developing a better understanding of these trends and of the prospects for more robust early release reforms in the future, the authors analyzed the results of public opinion surveys of hundreds of Wisconsin voters in 2012 and 2013. Notable findings include the following: (1) public support for TIS is strong and stable; (2) support for TIS results less from fear of crime than from a dislike of the parole decisionmaking process (which helps to explain why support for TIS has remained strong even as crime rates have fallen sharply); (3) support for TIS is not absolute and inflexible, but is balanced against such competing objectives as cost-reduction and offender rehabilitation, (4) a majority of the public would favor release as early as the halfway point in a prison sentence if public safety would not be threatened, and (5) a majority would prefer to have release decisions made by a commission of experts instead of a judge.

Entitled “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing,’” our paper will be published in early 2015 in the BYU Law Review.

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