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Q: Does a Majority Favor Lowering Drug Sentences?

A:  In a word, no.  Not close.

I want to follow up on Kent's post about the Gallup poll on sentencing, focusing specifically on drugs. My reason is that the sentencing reform proposals in Congress concentrate mainly on lowering drug sentences. This has also been the focus of the (liberal majority) Sentencing Commission in recent years. 

One of the things I often hear when I debate sentencing "reform" is that lowering sentences is the politically astute thing for Republicans to do.

That is simply false.
Let's look at Gallup's numbers:

Americans' Views of Drug Crime Sentencing Guidelines, by Race and Party Leanings

In general, do you think the current sentencing guidelines for people convicted of routine drug crimes are too tough, not tough enough or about right?
Too toughNot tough enoughAbout rightNo opinion
National adults3834254
Republicans/Republican leaners2647226
Democrats/Democratic leaners

Oct. 5-9, 2016


What we see here is not ambiguous.  Thirty-eight percent of adults think drug sentences are too tough (and thus presumably should be lowered), while fifty-nine percent think they're about right where they are, or not tough enough (and thus presumably should be left alone or increased).

In other words, the "let's-lower-drug-sentences" crowd is on the wrong end of a 3 to 2 spread.  You'd be better off in the Donald Trump crowd. For that matter, you'd be better off in the George McGovern crowd.

So is it politically astute to push for lowering drug sentences?  Let me ask that another way:  Am I giving $10,000 to Gary Johnson?

There is one other quite interesting item in this poll, to wit, that non-whites are even more heavily against reducing drug sentences than whites.  Among non-whites, the "too tough" position loses to the "about-right-or-not-tough-enough" position by 36% to 61%.

When we remember that African Americans are disproportionately the ones who have to live in the areas plagued with drug crime (see this post), this finding will come as no surprise.  High-living think tank "scholars," will, however, be scratching their heads (or, more likely, trying to think of some diversionary spin). 


Hope you do not consider it a diversion to highlight that the Gallup polling data shows even stronger support for marijuana legalization. Just curious if you think the same Gallup-based political argument to not reforming drug sentencing provides a similarly strong political argument for repealing federal marijuana prohibition.

I promise to be every bit as enthusiastic about the political advantages of repealing pot laws as you are about the political advantages of preserving our present system of tough sentences.

Should I be on the lookout for an entry on SL&P to the effect: "Congressmen and Senators -- if you want to honor the wishes of the people, walk away from Mike Lee and join up with Tom Cotton in saying 'no' to sentencing reform!"

P.S. The difference is that, for some time now, I have acknowledged that there is a majority in favor of legalizing pot, but the sentencing reform forces refuse to acknowledge -- and indeed spend a good deal of time denying -- that the majority does NOT want lower sentences. (See, e.g., anything written by Holly Harris).

But Bill, you are smart enough to realize that your common refrain that the feds do not generally even bother to prosecute "routine drug crimes" -- but go mainly after only serious and violent traffickers --- suggests that this Gallup question technically only really provides insight into what polled people think about whether current STATE "sentencing guidelines for people convicted of routine drug crimes" are set now soundly.

So, basic follow-up question #1: Am I wrong to recall that you (and I think Tom Cotton and NAAUSA and many others against federal sentencing reforms) often stress that the federal system never even bothers to prosecute "routine drug crimes." Or are you now saying that the feds do prosecute in federal court a lot of "routine drug crimes"?


Also, this Gallup question asked about "current sentencing guidelines" so even if understood as a reference to the federal sentencing system by those polled, the current sentencing guidelines incorporate all the recent crack and drug sentencing reductions. And, I do not believe Tom Cotton ever spoke out forcefully against any of those very, very important and consequential federal "sentencing guidelines" reforms in 2007 and 2010 and 2014, right?

So, basic follow-up question #2: given that a 3-2 spread seems to support the status quo or thinks it is too tough, is it fair to read this poll (to the extent it is about federal drug sentencing) as evidence that large majorities continue to favor all the dramatic and consequential federal sentencing guideline drug sentencing reductions of the last decade (and a good number want more)?


Finally, and at the risk of getting too technical and precise about these matters, but Tom Cotton is saying only "no" to federal mandatory minimum sentencing reform not to "sentencing guidelines" reform. Indeed, as I mentioned above, I do not recall him or any others coming out strongly against federal drug "sentencing guidelines" reforms in 2007 and 2010 and 2014.

So, (critical last) follow-up question #3: Isn't it really MUCH more accurate to say this poll really tells us very little about what the polled public thinks about reforming federal mandatory minimum sentences in federal drug cases?

The question's wording leaves something to be desired, for sure -- but not, I believe, in the way you think.

I have no way of knowing what respondents thought when asked about "routine drug crimes." My guess is that they thought of some guy smoking a joint, since that was by far the "routine drug crime" of my, and I think subsequent, generations.

It seems to me that the public would likely have had a much, much more punitive response if the question had been -- as you (correctly) imply it should have been: "Do you think the current sentencing guidelines for people convicted in federal court of major drug trafficking crimes, or drug crimes involving violence, are too tough, not tough enough or about right?"

In other words, the sentencing reform side caught a big break by the relatively blase' wording of the question ("routine drug crimes"), but STILL sentencing reformers lost by 3-2.

I'm not sure how useful it is to read this as a referendum on specific policy details such as changes to sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimums. I would be shocked if more than a tiny minority had any idea such changes had taken place. Nor do I think most people have much idea of the difference between federal and state enforcement/sentencing.

To the extent that respondents interpret 'routine drug crimes' they probably just assume it means most of the people in jail for drugs. This would indicate that they are more or less satisfied with the current prison population, drugs included.

If you want to apply the poll to current attempts to further loosen drug sentences/minimums, then you've got 59-38 in opposition. But the House is controlled by the GOP, so it's Republican views that matter. That would make it 69-26 opposed, about 3-1. In other words, Republican leaders would be insane to support any reduction in drug-related punishment.


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