Latinos See a Need for Criminal Justice Reform
An overwhelming majority of Latinos agree that California’s criminal justice and public safety systems need to be altered and that state priorities are out of line with residents’ interests. Latinos have a strong sense that proposed public safety realignment policies will make positive changes in the system, and they want the budgetary focus to shift to education and rehabilitation efforts.
Recent developments at the state level have sought to address systemic problems in California’s criminal justice system. In 2011 Governor Jerry Brown signed the Public Safety Realignment Act, designed to turn the tide of low-level offenders cycling repeatedly through California’s prison system and to reduce overcrowding. Latino crime victims reported strong support (69 percent) for the realignment law (David Binder Research, 2013a).
California voters approved Proposition 36 in 2012, making changes to the three strikes law in order to impose life sentences only for certain felony convictions. According to a November 2012 survey by Fairbanks, Maslin, Maulin, Metz & Associates, Latinos fell in line with a majority of voters of color at 76% support, compared to 68% of white voters who supported the initiative (FM3 Associates, 2012). Latinos have also demonstrated support for such measures as reduced drug penalties (72 percent) and pretrial release programs (67 percent) that allow courts to require monitoring in the community as an alternative to jail for defendants awaiting trial (Tulchin Research, 2012).
A 2013 survey asked California voters to look at proposed solutions to overcrowding in California’s prisons, and a solid majority of Latino voters favored each of the eight proposals surveyed. Approximately 78 percent of Latinos in the sample supported providing treatment for the mentally ill instead of jailing them, and 76 percent approved of establishing a Public Safety Commission to streamline California’s laws to be more effective and save costs. Proposals to release elderly and frail inmates, to require supervised probation for the last six month of jail sentences, and to allow those sentenced as teenagers to be able to earn sentence reconsideration garnered 66 percent support each. Finally, policies to reduce drug possession penalties, to allow early release, and to provide financial incentives to counties for reducing their incarcerated populations polled at 63 percent, 61 percent, and 60 percent support, respectively (see figure 1) (David Binder Research, 2013b).
In California, Latino support for reduced penalties for drug possession spans demographic groups, with majorities across age, income, and political party groups saying that penalties should be minimized and that drug users possessing small amounts should get treatment rather than incarceration on a case-by-case basis (Pantoja, 2014). Latinos also support reduced drug possession penalties at the national level: 60 percent agree that possession of small amounts of marijuana should not be punished with jail time (Pew Research Center, 2014a). (This share, however, was lower than for both blacks and whites.)
When asked about their concerns with the current criminal justice system, Latinos cited the amount of money spent on prisons and the use of incarceration for non-serious and nonviolent offenders as the most important problems to address. Assuming that one or more reforms were enacted to reduce criminal justice costs, a strong theme of new priorities in education and rehabilitation emerged. Latinos called for spending the state dollars on education, community college, mental health treatment, California universities, and violence prevention programs instead (David Binder Research, 2013b).
Latinos believe California’s priorities are misaligned
A 2013 survey of California crime victims found that they overwhelmingly disapproved of the state’s investing more money in jails and prison and that they supported funding of preventive measures such as education and health services (including mental health and substance abuse). It is no surprise then that Latino crime victims exhibited a skeptical view of the impact of prison on criminals: in this sample, 39 percent thought that prison actually makes better criminals, while 36 percent thought it has no impact and only 19 percent believed that prison has some rehabilitation value or makes offenders better citizens (see figure 2) (David Binder Research, 2013a).
Opinions about state investment priorities clearly reflect this doubt. An overwhelming majority of Latino crime victim respondents believed that California should invest money in places other than prison, whether that meant spending on education or health services or even on preventing crimes instead. For example, asked whether California should spend more on prisons and jails or spend more on preventing crimes, 76 percent of Latinos polled (more than any other ethnic group) wanted the state to spend more on prevention. By a ratio of two to one, Latinos thought that California should focus more on providing supervised probation and rehabilitation programs rather than sending people to jail or prison (David Binder Research, 2013a). All of these finding indicate that Latinos agree with the majority of Californians who see a need for criminal justice and public safety realignment in the state.
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