'Second chance' prison release gains broad support, especially for drug offenses

May 6, 2021
Americans are broadly supportive of policies that would let most prisoners out of jail early, based on certain conditions. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Americans are broadly supportive of policies that would let most prisoners out of jail early, based on certain conditions. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Americans from across the political spectrum support policies designed to release many incarcerated people from prison early, new research shows.

Individuals' openness to so-called "second chance" mechanisms, which include more lenient parole policies and the reduction of sentence time in exchange for good behavior, extends to people convicted of both nonviolent infractions such as drug trafficking and violent offenses such as murder, according to an April 28 Journal of Experimental Criminology paper

The research adds to evidence that there is bipartisan support for policies designed to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the U.S., which spends about $182 billion annually to incarcerate more than 2 million people at any given time — more than any other country in the world, both on a total and per capita basis, according to the World Prison Brief. 

"It's just another dot in the empirical storm of data to show you that people in the United States and communities at different levels are really interested in reforming the criminal justice system," said sole author Colleen Berryessa, an assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice. "It's important for policymakers to know that people are supportive of this." 

In her study, Berryessa examined Americans' support for eight different "second chance" policies, asking groups of participants to rank their support for each policy from 1 to 100, with 1 indicating strong opposition, 50 indicating neutrality and 100 indicating strong support. Average scores fell between 50 and 75 for each offense Berryessa applied the policy to in the survey. 

"In all cases, people were more than neutral," Berryessa said. "People seemed to be supportive of using these mechanisms across the board." 

The policies measured included presumptive parole, through which parole is automatically granted to incarcerated people unless parole boards find explicit reasons to deny it; universal parole eligibility after 15 years, through which every incarcerated person is considered for parole after 15 years no matter their offense; commutation, through which prison terms are shortened following conviction; "granting of good time," through which incarcerated people are released earlier than expected in exchange for good behavior behind bars; and compassionate release, an early release from prison due to factors such as illness, old age or family circumstances. 

Berryessa also asked survey respondents about the elimination of parole revocations for technical violations such as missing a meeting with a parole officer or traveling to another state without permission; "second look sentencing," in which a case is brought back to court for review and possible reduction of the sentence; and retroactive application of sentence reduction reforms, which ensures that currently incarcerated people receive the benefits of new sentencing policies and legislation.

"That's not a comprehensive list, but those are the most common mechanisms," Berryessa said of her choice of "second chance" policies.  

Participants were most supportive of "second chance" policies for drug trafficking offenses, a finding in line with the growing acceptability in the U.S. of marijuana legalization and a growing consensus that treatment is a better way to address the opioid epidemic than incarceration. Support for "granting of good time" for people convicted of drug trafficking came in at 72.8, compared to 67.3 for offenses overall. Participants also supported compassionate release for drug offenses, giving the policy a score of 70.1, compared to 66.6 overall. 

"People are changing in their views of drugs and how we should punish drugs," Berryessa said. She added that she is conducting a follow-up study using a similar design to examine attitudes toward different drug crimes. 

The study, based on 836 participants in a Qualtrics online survey that screened for attention and honesty, also showed variation among demographic groups' support for "second chance" policies.

Overall, women were significantly less likely to support "second chance" policies than men. Pointing to previous work on the topic, Berryessa suggested that women may be less open to releasing prisoners early due to their perceived greater vulnerability to crime. 

Older people were also less likely to support "second chance" policies than men, possibly also due to their perceived higher vulnerability to crime, according to Berryessa.

And African Americans were significantly more likely to support "second chance" policies than other races and ethnicities, likely due to the fact that the incarceration rate is more than five times higher for African Americans than white Americans, Berryessa wrote. 

Berryessa emphasized that her research should not be seen as a substitute for public opinion polling. Prior to recording participants' views on "second chance" policies, she provided them with incarceration numbers and recidivism rates for each crime. In the messy world of electoral politics and policy, partisan attacks and sensationalist narratives around crime can complicate the picture. 

"It's really hard for policymakers to go in a nonpunitive direction and that's because they're scared," she said. "We have historically been a very punitive culture, and it's something they worry about when it comes to elections, when it comes to constituents' support." 

Nonetheless, Berryessa is hopeful that her research can help convince politicians that criminal justice reform is both necessary and politically popular. 

"It's important for policymakers to know that people are supportive of this," she said. 

The paper, "A tale of 'second chances': An experimental examination of popular support for early release mechanisms that reconsider long-term prison sentences," published April 28 in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, was authored by Colleen Berryessa, Rutgers University. 

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