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21 Fed. Sent. R. 291 (2008-2009)
Punishing Criminals, the Public's View: An Alabama Survey

handle is hein.journals/fedsen21 and id is 301 raw text is: PUNISHING CRIMINALS, THE PUBLIC'S VIEW:
An Alabama Survey

[This is a short, edited excerpt of this 1989 report by
Public Agenda. - Eds.].
Public opinion, we hear, is forcing lawmakers to get
tough with criminals. For some 15 years, policyrnakers
across the country have taken a hard line with criminals
in the pursuit of safe streets. Our prison population has
grown by more than 200 percent, but crime remains a
major problem. Undeterred by the poor outcome of
increased incarceration, politicians continue to push for
harsher penalties under the banner of doing the public's
bidding.
The major impact of the toughened policies, however,
has been on the taxpayer's wallet and on wardens who
struggle to control the swarms of incoming
inmates-about a thousand a week nationwide. As the
cost of prisons becomes one of the largest single items in
state budgets, and as even the most aggressive building
programs fail to keep pace with swelling inmate popula-
tions, the question occurs: Does the public view
imprisonment as the only adequate punishment for
crime?
Public Agenda put this question before a
representative sample of 420 Alabama citizens. Their
answer was a resounding no. Alabamians are by no
means ready to abandon prisons; they want drug dealers
and violent criminals caged. But the study found the pub-
lic to be much more discriminating and practical in
punishing offenders than merely tossing them into over-
crowded prisons for lengthy terms. When respondents
were presented with sentencing options beyond prison
and probation, when they were educated about the relative
costs of various punishments, they moved away from
imprisonment as the preferred punishment for certain
dasses of offenders.
The survey provides guidance to policymakers who
think that advocating anything short of prison for con-
victed felons is political suicide. Three areas of paydirt
emerge:
If offenders selected for alternative sentences are
serious but not dangerous offenders, the public will
tolerate punishments other than prison.

The public is ready to embrace sentencing options
that stress restitution and rehabilitation.
With some basic information, the public moves rap-
idly to broaden this embrace of alternative
punishments for selected offenders otherwise des-
tined for prison.
As encouraging as the findings are for those who seek
to reduce reliance on prison, a program that uses alterna-
tive punishments may be hard to maintain in the face of
the nation's extraordinary crime rate and a steady barrage
of frightening crime reports in the media. Rapes, killings,
and street muggings are standard fare on the evening
news. Tempering our visceral reaction to crime and crimi-
nals takes leaders with courage.
The Public Agenda survey was undertaken as one of
several activities the Foundation is supporting in Alabama
to help leaders bring their prison population in balance
with their prison capacity. In supporting this study, the
Clark Foundation sought to test earlier studies dispelling
the notion that the public holds an iron grip on the propo-
sition that punishment equals imprisonment. We sought
to fortify Alabama's leaders in their support of a penal sys-
tem that dispenses justice effectively and affordably.
The study will also give encouragement to leaders
throughout the country who ponder the same problem. It
is unlikely that citizens of other states would be less will-
ing than Alabamians to consider alternatives to
imprisonment. Alabama can hardly be accused of being
soft on criminals.
Introduction
Jean Johnson,
Director of Programs,
Public Agenda
Political leaders and criminal justice professionals in
some 39 states are faced with a dilemma: they are under
court order to reduce prison overcrowding, yet they have
limited tax dollars to expand prison space. Further, they
often face community opposition when deciding where to
locate new corrections facilities. In addition, many profes-
sionals are convinced that imprisonment by itself does

Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 21, No. 4, PP. 291-293, ISSN 1053-9867 electronic ISSN 1533-8363
©1989 Public Agenda. This excerpt was reprinted with permission, For more information,
please visit Public Agenda: http://publicagenda.org. DOI: 10.1525/fsr.2oog.21.4.291.
FEDERAL SENTENCING REPORTER - VOL. 21, NO. 4                   • APRIL 2009

r7
An Analysis of
Public Opinion
Prepared by Public
Agenda for The
Edna McConnell
Clark Foundation
By John Doble and
Josh Klein
Originally
published in 1989

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