|WASHINGTON, DC — A new nationally representative survey of likely voters in the 2022 midterm elections conducted by leading Democratic and Republican pollsters, Benenson Strategy Group and Public Opinion Strategies, finds that despite the attempts of some candidates to make crime and criminal justice reform political wedge issues in the midterm elections, voters from both parties want their elected officials and candidates to support bold reforms including state and federal policy changes that would reduce incarceration.
The poll shows that 8 in 10 likely voters support criminal justice reform, including 74% of Republicans, 80% of independents, and 85% of Democrats, and two-thirds of voters (66%) believe the criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul or major reform. Voters are more than twice as likely to believe we need more reforms to reduce incarceration than to believe we should undo policy changes that have reduced incarceration. As a result, 58% of voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports criminal justice reform compared to only 13% who would be less likely.
Past research has shown that perceptions of crime are driven more by media coverage and political discourse than actual crime rates, and this new polling shows the same effect occurring during a campaign that has seen a return to some of the worst fear mongering and political attack ads of the “tough on crime” era. However, unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, voters do not believe harsher punishments are the best way to improve public safety and do not want to return to the failed policies that led to mass incarceration in the first place. This is a sea change in American politics resulting from more than a decade of successful reforms to reduce crime and incarceration at the same time.
“There are very few issues that produce such deep bipartisan agreement as criminal justice reform,” said Shannon Currie, Vice President at Benenson Strategy Group. “Voters across the political spectrum, from red, blue, and purple states alike, prefer candidates who understand that more arrests, more prosecutions, and more incarceration does not equal more public safety.”
While 72% of respondents report feeling safe in their community, and fewer than one-third of respondents (31%) believe crime is rising locally, 71% believe crime is rising nationally. This 40 point spread between the share of people who believe crime is rising in their community versus rising nationally speaks to the impact of media coverage and political advertising that misrepresents actual crime trends. As a result, the poll results show that crime is the top issue for only 5% of voters heading into the midterm elections, far below the economy (22%) and inflation (21%), and less of a concern than abortion (7%), health care (6%), climate change (6%), and gun violence (6%). Among Black voters, crime is the top issue for only 4% of respondents and falls below other issues that affect their safety such as gun violence (10%), racism and discrimination (8%), and political extremism (5%).
Despite the misleading rhetoric of some outspoken candidates in this cycle’s campaign, the polling demonstrates that voters do not believe that more public safety and less incarceration are in conflict. In fact, 70% of likely voters believe it is important to reduce the jail and prison population and large majorities support reforms at the state and federal level to limit pretrial detention, reduce the number of prison admissions, and expand release opportunities.
- 81% of voters support allowing people in prison to earn additional time off their sentence for following prison rules and participating in rehabilitation programs;
- 76% support creating a process for judges or prosecutors to review and possibly resentence on a case-by-case basis after a person has served at least 15 years in prison;
- 75% support ending the practice of keeping people in jail before their trial if they have been charged with a nonviolent offense;
- 72% support eliminating the sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine so that the same quantities of the drug trigger the same criminal penalties, which is the policy in federal legislation known as the EQUAL Act;
- 71% support increasing the number of opportunities for people in prison to be considered for release by a parole board; and
- 69% support eliminating mandatory minimums and other sentencing laws that require a long prison sentence rather than allowing judges to determine the appropriate punishment based on the facts of the case.
Policy changes to reduce incarceration are particularly popular among Black voters, who report the highest rates of victimization but also strongly believe it is important to reduce the jail and prison population (82%). By a 4 to 1 margin, Black voters are also more likely to believe we need more reforms to reduce incarceration than to believe we should undo policy changes that have reduced incarceration.
“With midterm elections right around the corner, this important new research shows that criminal justice reform remains a priority for all voters and that candidates are being asked to deliver more safety and more justice.” said Zoë Towns, Vice President of Criminal Justice Reform at FWD.us. “Luckily, we already have the evidence-based policy playbook to do just that.”
Between 2009 and 2019, 37 states lowered both their crime and incarceration rates through legislation, executive action, and voter referendum. Crime rates have declined for 18 consecutive years and the prison population is lower today than at any point in the past two decades. Results from the new poll commissioned by FWD.us demonstrate the depth of support for these past reforms and voters’ continued desire for even bolder reforms to further reduce incarceration rates.
“Criminal justice reform is a winning issue for candidates in both political parties,” said Robert Blizzard, Partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “Voters are hungry for public safety solutions that rely less on costly incarceration and want their tax dollars spent on more effective crime prevention programs that work better and cost less.”
The national survey of N=1,405 likely voters including N=352 Black voters in the midterm elections was fielded October 6-October 10, 2022 and the results were weighted to reflect the American electorate. The margin of error is ± 2.5% at the 95% confidence interval.
Read the full polling memo here.
About FWD.us: FWD.us is a bipartisan political organization that believes America’s families, communities, and economy thrive when more individuals are able to achieve their full potential. For too long, our immigration and criminal justice systems have locked too many people out of the American dream. Founded by leaders in the technology and business communities, we seek to grow and galvanize political support to break through partisan gridlock and achieve meaningful reforms. Together, we can move America forward.
About Benenson Strategy Group: Benenson Strategy Group is a global strategic research firm that specializes in assessing needs, attitudes and values of audiences and developing winning marketing and communication strategies. Our unique approach is built on collaboration with our clients to develop their durable narrative, rooted in their values. We leverage our language expertise with innovative qualitative and quantitative methods to uncover the “hidden architecture of opinion” that shapes your audiences’ decision frames.
About Public Opinion Strategies: Since the founding of Public Opinion Strategies in 1991, our firm has conducted 10 million interviews and completed more than 24,000 projects. Our research is well respected, which is why prestigious media outlets such as NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio have relied on us to conduct their polling. We are the largest Republican polling firm in the country. Our political client base includes 11 U.S. Senators, 7 Governors, 50 Members of Congress, and numerous state legislative caucuses. In the last six election cycles, Public Opinion Strategies helped elect more new members to the U.S. Congress than any other polling firm, Democrat or Republican.