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Even violent crime victims say our prisons are making crime worse

A first-of-its-kind national survey finds that victims of crime say they want to see shorter prison sentences, less spending on prisons and a greater focus on the rehabilitation of criminals.

The survey, conducted in April and released Thursday by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform group, polled the attitudes and beliefs of more 800 crime victims pooled from a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 respondents. People were classified as crime victims if they reported being victimized in a violent or property crime any time in the past 10 years.

“Perhaps to the surprise of some, the National Survey on Victims’ Views found that the overwhelming majority of crime victims believe that the criminal justice system relies too heavily on incarceration, and strongly prefer investments in treatment and prevention to more spending on prisons and jails,” according to the report.

By two-to-one, victims said the criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitating people who commit crimes, as opposed to punishing them. By similar margins, the victims preferred shorter prison sentences over keeping criminals incarcerated “as long as possible.”

These findings mirror what other polls have shown on general public attitudes toward prison. A 2012 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 84 percent of the public, including strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, agreed that money should be shifted from locking up nonviolent inmates to alternative programs, like probation and parole.

More recent surveys have uncovered overwhelming support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for federal crimes.

But congressional efforts to implement policies like these have often been stymied by “tough-on-crime” senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who are skeptical of many reform efforts. They often cite the experiences of crime victims and their families in their arguments against reform.

For instance, in 2009 Feinstein and Republican Sen. Jon Kyl argued in an op-ed that “for too long, our court system has tilted in favor of accused criminals and has proven appallingly indifferent to the suffering of crime victims.”

In 2014, Grassley argued on the Senate floor that “lower mandatory minimum sentences mean increased crime and increased victims. Why would we vote to increase crime and create more crime victims?”

But the new survey suggests that crime victims’ interests don’t always align with those of the tough-on-crime lawmakers who invoke their names. The survey suggests this may be because many crime victims don’t see prison as an effective tool for reducing the crime rate and preventing others from being victimized.

In the survey, 52 percent of victims said that prison makes people more likely to commit crimes again. Only 19 percent said that prison helps rehabilitate people into better citizens. This skepticism of prisons is in line with most social science research, which has generally shown that mass incarceration causes more crime than it prevents, that institutionalizing young offenders makes them more likely to commit crime as adults, and that spending time in prison teaches people how to be better criminals.

The survey comes during a period intense focus on clemency efforts by the Obama administration. The president recently commuted the sentences of 214 people in federal prison, 67 of whom were serving life terms.

For at least some crime survivors, these commutations represent an important step toward a more just, less violent society. The survey report quotes Judy Martin, an Ohio woman whose son was shot and killed in a parking lot.

“The way our criminal justice system is set up currently doesn’t allow for redemption,” Martin says. “We must treat each other, even those among us who have made serious mistakes, with more humanity. It’s the only way forward.”

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