Incarceration policy represents the reddest of red meat. From Richard Nixon’s calls for “law and order,” to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads, to President Trump’s promises to jail or deport “bad dudes,” modern American leaders have reliably used punitive rhetoric to get elected—and have overseen the expansion of the carceral society that inevitably followed.
There’s evidence now, however, that the allure of these appeals may be waning. A new poll, released Thursday by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Vera Institute of Justice, provides the latest data in a growing body of evidence suggesting that Americans actually want fewer prisons—and now favor policies and politicians that put fewer people in them.
The GQR/Vera poll finds that a plurality of Americans believe incarceration rates are too high. Forty percent of those polled said too many people are incarcerated, versus 33 percent who said the number is just about right and 9 percent who said rates are too low. These results track with other surveys, such as those cited by Peter Enns in Incarceration Nation, showing that, overall, Americans’ punitive attitudes have decreased since their 1995 peak. A recent Morning Consult poll found that even more Americans, at 51 percent, believe there are too many people in prison.