Research reveals gap between public policy, resident attitudes on crime and punishment

November 2, 2005

Boston –A recent survey of public opinion indicates a significant difference between current state policy towards crime and punishment and what residents of Massachusetts see as an effective and appropriate strategy for handling of those convicted of crime. According to the study, which was undertaken by the Crime and Justice Institute and Doble Research Associates and funded by the Boston Foundation, residents of the Commonwealth believe a policy that places more importance on prevention and treatment would reduce recidivism rates—and would also be more prudent fiscally.

The report, which includes the actual survey used, was released by the Foundation November 3 and is available at

According to the survey, this public attitude is aligned to the findings of national research on ex-offenders and programs that target this population to reduce re-offending. That research has established over the past decade that a combination of drug and alcohol treatment designed for offenders, job and life-skill training, and careful supervision can reduce the rates at which former prisoners commit new crimes after being released from jail or prison.

“This survey of public opinion should serve as a wake-up call to our public officials,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “It is time for a new vision for criminal justice, one that serves the community by reducing rates of recidivism. We know what works, and the public support is there for a more effective strategy.”

The study undertaken by the Crime and Justice Institute focused on the fact that approximately 20,000 ex-inmates return to the community each year, reflecting years of criminal justice policy that emphasized more prison sentences and mandatory minimum terms. Yet at the same time, programs proven to reduce the rate at which ex-offenders re-offend—including job training, drug treatment and staged reentry into civil society—have been cut. Prisoners are increasingly likely to be released directly into the community without skills, a supportive network or even supervision, in some cases.

The study, which included focus groups and telephone interviews with 748 randomly selected Massachusetts adults, sought to understand public attitudes towards offenders and the way their reentry to the community is handled in Boston and across the state.

According to attitudes described by the survey, Massachusetts residents:

  • Overwhelmingly oppose mandatory minimum sentencing and believe that judges should have more discretion in sentencing offenders.
  • Would prefer the courts to have the latitude to impose mandatory drug treatment rather than mandatory imprisonment for drug offenders.
  • Want the state to focus on prevention and rehabilitation rather than on longer sentences.
  • Support the idea of providing education, job training and substance abuse treatment for inmates and ex-offenders.
  • Would be willing to see the state spend more on programs shown to reduce recidivism event if it means a tax increase.

“What this survey clearly shows is a public call for systemic change in the way we manage criminal justice,” said Elyse Clawson, Executive Director of the Crime and Justice Institute. “What state residents want to see is a system that is not soft on crime, but smart about crime, using programs and careful re-entry to reduce the numbers of ex-offenders who re-offend. That way everyone wins—crime is reduced, cost is reduced and a more equitable system is created.”

The role of substance abuse

Research cited by the survey has determined that recidivism can be reduced by addressing risk factors that are some of the drivers of criminal behavior. Assessment tools can be used to identify individual offenders’ risk factors to help predict their risk for committing future crime and to allow appropriate targeting of interventions to change their criminal behavior.  One risk factor that is especially powerful is drug and alcohol abuse. About 80 percent of current inmates have a history of substance abuse, and numerous studies indicate that programs targeting substance abuse throughout the correctional system, both in prison and after release, typically have a significant impact on recidivism. One study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calculates that for every dollar invested in substance abuse treatment, taxpayers save seven dollars as a result of reductions in crime, victimization and other costs.

Fiscal responsibility was a theme that runs throughout the survey results. One point of comparison was the difference in cost between treatment and incarceration, especially with regard to the frequency with which substance abuse played a role in incarceration. In the year 2003 alone, more than 1,100 individuals had their parole revoked and were returned to prison. Most of these cases reflected non-criminal violations, such as failing a required drug test. This reflects current practice in which community-based drug treatments are difficult to access, yet a year of outpatient substance abuse treatment costs $4,970 compared to $43,000, which is the cost of a year’s incarceration.

In addition to their approval of programs which appear to be cost-effective, residents surveyed support the idea of preparing inmates for release by moving them through gradations of less secure confinement, through work-release and half-way houses, with early release on parole reserved for nonviolent prisoners.  Residents also want prisoners leaving maximum security facilities who are deemed higher risk to re-offend to be supervised after release—even after they have served their entire sentence. Finally, residents want to see a range of sanctions applied to ex-inmates who violate the terms of parole. Automatic reincarceration was rejected as an effective strategy, even for failing a drug test.  Residents are typically convinced that a combination of re-integration strategies and potential sanctions will help ex-offenders re-enter civil society and not re-offend.

As communities across the country grapple with the high cost of incarcerating record numbers of offenders, many states are making reforms to use resources more efficiently. The survey undertaken by the Crime and Justice Institute, with Doble Research Associates and  funded by the Boston Foundation offers crucial information about an alignment between public attitude and research findings that suggests a new direction for criminal justice policy in Massachusetts.


About The Boston Foundation
The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, has an endowment of almost $675 million.  In 2004, the Foundation made $51 million in grants to nonprofit organizations, and received gifts of $41 million. The Boston Foundation is made up of 750 separate charitable funds, which have been established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a civic leader, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to build community. For more information about the Boston Foundation and its grant making, visit, or call 617-338-1700.

About the Crime and Justice Institute
The Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) seeks to improve criminal/juvenile justice and social welfare systems to be more fair, humane, results-driven, and cost-effective. We aim to contribute to the revitalization and empowerment of urban communities and to assist vulnerable populations in realizing their potential to lead productive and satisfying lives. Through our research and capacity-building technical assistance, CJI promotes evidence-based policies and practices for addressing criminal and social justice issues nationwide and in Massachusetts. CJI has built a reputation over many decades for innovative thinking and unbiased issue analysis.  Founded in 1878, CJI operates as a division of Community Resources for Justice, which was formed in the 1999 merger of Massachusetts Half-Way Houses and the Crime and Justice Foundation. For more information about CJI, visit, or call 617-482-2520.