Even Trump Supporters Think America's Prisons Are Overpopulated and Desperately Need Change

Jeff Sessions with Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York City on October 7, 2016. Mike Segar/Reuters

A vast majority of Americans questioned in a new poll think the U.S. criminal justice system is broken and needs reform—and even most voters who supported President Donald Trump said the prison population should be reduced and more rehabilitation services should be provided for inmates.

The results are surprising because Trump during his campaign and in his first year of office has repeatedly used terms like "American Carnage" to describe U.S. crime, and he and member of his administration have called for more "law and order" and moved to lengthen prison sentences.

Overall, 71 percent of the more than 1,000 people who were polled said it's important to reduce the prison population in the U.S., including 87 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans.

"Even among Trump voters, 52% say it's important to reduce the prison population," stated a press release accompanying the poll, which was conducted last month on behalf of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

More than 90 percent said the criminal justice system had problems, and only 7 percent said they believed it was "working well."

It's unlikely the U.S. prison population will decrease any time soon. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May released a memo regarding his new policies on criminal charges and sentencing, and they were widely seen as likely to restart the war on drugs and to increase the federal prison population.

But 65 percent of Trump voters believe long sentences are counterproductive because prisons are seen as doing a poor job rehabilitating people, the poll found, stances that could be seen as standing in opposition to the new Sessions policies.

"Simply put, Americans, overall, want criminal justice reform…this includes Trump supporters," said Udi Ofer, deputy national political director and director of the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice. "Yet this is in direct contrast to Trump's policies and the policies of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.… We've seen this administration double down on the war on drugs, yet this poll shows us Americans want the exact opposite."

The data is clear — when it comes to criminal justice, Americans want reform and rehabilitation, and reject President Trump’s outdated political playbook. https://t.co/BTMMA073VK

— ACLU (@ACLU) November 16, 2017

The poll also asked people what type of candidates they would support, with the results appearing to show strong backing for those who would reduce the prison population and reinvest the resulting savings into programs that prevent crime.

But while about three-quarters of the people polled said they would support a candidate who wanted to cut the number of prisoners, that doesn't fit with the results of the presidential election last year.

Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president in July 2016 in Philadelphia with a speech boasting, "I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country."

Trump won the election in November, in part because of his "law and order" mantra, so it's unclear how some of his supporters reconcile his words with their answers in the ACLU poll.

Additional reporting by Christal Hayes.