Less than 20 percent of Americans think jail should be punitive

More people believe jail should be rehabilitative.

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

Approximately 12 million people are held in jail each year. The majority of them are nonviolent offenders and people detained for their inability to pay bail. But as the country braces for President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ crackdown on crime, few Americans agree with how jails are being used.

According to a new poll conducted by Zogby and RTI International and released by the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday, the public widely favors alternatives to jail. Out of 3,007 people surveyed across the country, 62 percent of respondents support rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders instead of locking them up to prevent future crimes or using jail as a form of punishment. About 75 percent preferred rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders with mental illness.

The poll also found that few Americans support pretrial detention for people who can’t afford bail. A miniscule 14 percent of respondents said people should be held in pretrial detention for nonviolent offenses that don’t involve property loss. Less than one-third of respondents agreed that a person’s financial woes warrant jail time before a trial. More than two-thirds argued that public safety concerns should impact the decision to lock someone up before they are convicted.

As for people who are convicted of a crime, 18 percent of respondents support jails as a form of punishment, as opposed to 33 percent who believe that jails should be rehabilitative. (Approximately four out of every ten people held in jail in 2013 were there because they had been convicted of a crime according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice.)

Altogether, the poll reveals that most jail detainees wouldn’t be doing time if public opinion impacted jail admissions.


In 2015, the Vera Institute concluded that roughly 75 percent of jail detainees are locked up for nonviolent crimes, whether they are convicted or waiting for their trials. On Wednesday, the Prison Policy Initiative revealed that 443,000 out of 630,000 people doing time in local jails haven’t been convicted. Out of the entire jail population, only 178,000 people are accused or convicted of a violent crime.

In 2015, the Urban Institute found that 64 percent of all jail detainees have a history of mental illness. In 2016, a separate study from the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) found that 40.4 percent of jails in 39 participating states have a “large seriously mentally ill population.” Nearly 96 percent of all the jails involved in the study had “some inmates with serious mental illness.” In 2014, TAC also found that 44 states have more jail detainees with a mental illness than they have in their largest psychiatric hospitals, yet jails have few resources to provide adequate treatment.

Despite the general public’s preference for rehabilitation, the newest public poll comes at a time when the national jail population is growing and, under a “law and order” presidential administration, poised to expand even more in the near future.