Often, when criminal justice reformers advocate rehabilitation and treatment programs over more prison time for certain offenders, the response goes something like this: "Think of the victims. If you or your child or someone you love had been hurt, you'd want the criminal to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, wouldn't you?"
That seems like a compelling argument, but a new survey suggests it might make faulty assumptions about how real victims feel.
A first-of-its-kind national study by Alliance for Safety and Justice found that by two-to-one, victims would prefer more focus on rehabilitation and less on punishment in dealing with offenders. Sixty-one percent of crime victims support shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation. A large majority also prefers more investments in education, mental health treatment, drug treatment and job training as opposed to simply building more prisons. These results were consistent among all other demographic groups.
The survey included interviews with 800 survivors of violent and nonviolent crime, including survivors of rape and the family members of murder victims.
The study found that about 80 percent of victims reported experiencing at least one symptom of trauma. About two-thirds did not get help following the incident.
Among the study's other findings: By a 15-1 ratio, victims preferred increased investments in schools and education rather than in prisons and jails. By four-to-one, they preferred drug treatment over incarceration.
The study's most glaring weakness is that it doesn't compare victims' views to those of the public at large. Are the victims of crime more likely, or only somewhat less likely, to support alternatives to incarceration? If so, that's significant. But we don't know because the poll queried only victims.
A 2012 Pew study found that between 87 percent and 92 percent of national voters said they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with statements that support increased investments in community supervision and increased accountability over more prison spending. And a 2011 survey of registered voters in California found that 72 percent favored allocating taxpayer money for "alternative custody programs" over building more prisons and jails.
But this is the first poll that I'm aware of that puts such questions specifically to victims of crime. And despite the survey's flaw, it is significant that majorities, and in some cases large majorities, of crime victims support a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice.
Daniel Allott is deputy commentary editor for the Washington Examiner