Public Opinion and Sentencing Reform
Governor Brown has proposed a ballot initiative that would reform prison sentencing in California, increasing parole opportunities for non-violent felons. Our January PPIC Statewide Survey findings show a public opinion environment that may be favorable to the governor’s proposal.
Our survey shows that many Californians believe—incorrectly—that prisons and corrections account for the largest share of state spending. When asked to select the largest spending area of the state budget, California likely voters are most likely to choose prisons and corrections (41%)—this is consistent with our findings over the past several years. In fact, the allocation for prisons and corrections in the governor’s 2016–17 budget proposal ($10.6 billion) comes in behind higher education ($14.6 billion), health and human services ($33.7 billion), and K–12 education ($51.2 billion).
If the governor’s sentencing reform proposal is perceived as a way to reduce spending on prisons and corrections, it could benefit from this overestimation of state corrections spending. The proposal could also benefit from a contrasting opinion: only 3 percent of likely voters say that prisons and corrections should be the highest spending priority.
Californians’ current attitudes toward crime may also bode well for sentencing reform. Just 3 percent of likely voters name crime, gangs, or drugs as the most important issue for the governor and legislature to work on this year. And only 15 percent of likely voters say violence and street crime are a big problem in their communities today—down somewhat from January 2015 (22%). Furthermore, a solid majority of likely voters (63%) say that the criminal justice system is biased against blacks and other minorities, a share that is somewhat larger than it was last January (55%).
Given these attitudes toward crime and the criminal justice system, along with Californians’ desire to see less spending on prisons and corrections, the governor’s proposal for sentencing reform could be well received.