Polling Shows Voters Prefer Crime Prevention Over Punishment

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Sep 26, 2023

When public safety came up during the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential election, viewers heard candidates say “we ought to be funding law enforcement… at unprecedented levels.” There were promises to put “more cops . . . on the streets [and] able to do their jobs without looking over their shoulder for getting sued.” Candidates also vowed to incarcerate more people, stating “we have plenty of room in the federal prisons.”

But the United States already puts a greater percentage of its population behind bars than almost any other country. If this approach worked, we would already be one of the safest nations in the world. So why do we have higher rates of crime than many countries that arrest and incarcerate far fewer people?

Voters across the political spectrum know that our current approach to crime and safety is not working, and promises from candidates to simply arrest and incarcerate more people are out of step with what voters and communities actually want and need. Too often, the United States has used police and prisons to deal with problems driven by economic instability, untreated mental illness, and substance use. Instead of just reacting after crime happens, with police and prisons, alternative proven solutions include investments in jobs, education, health care, and sending the right first responders to each situation.

Vera Action recently released a national poll detailing what voters across the political spectrum believe addresses crime and makes communities safe. A majority of those polled prioritized solutions that prevent crime, rather than just responding after harm has been done. A prevention-first approach to safety, which involves fully funding “things that are proven to create safe communities and improve people’s quality of life, like good schools, a living wage, and affordable housing,” was more popular with voters than traditional “tough-on-crime” policies, like increased spending on police and prisons. Younger voters were especially likely to support candidates who favor crime prevention tactics, with 66 percent of voters ages 18 to 35 supporting this prevention-first approach to public safety. Preventing crime and delivering safety is a priority for everyone, but especially for Black and Latino communities. Polling showed that 65 percent of Black voters and 53 percent of Latino voters said that crime is a big problem where they live. The majority of these same voters are more likely to prefer “crime prevention” strategies over “tough on crime” policies.

Voters have plenty of evidence that more policing and more incarceration don’t fix problems. Indeed, we have seen this in how, for more than 50 years, the “War on Drugs” and its associated harsh prison sentences have not succeeded in ending drug use, despite more than $1 trillion spent since 1971. While states continue to spend billions of dollars annually imprisoning people for drug-related activity, addiction recovery programs have long waitlists because of inadequate public investment. In 2021, 107,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses. Many voters see that law enforcement responses to substance use are inadequate. For example, in 2020, Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 110, a law that decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs and earmarked part of the state’s cannabis tax revenue for harm reduction and treatment programs. Despite backlash from people who want to return to the failed status quo, Oregon is seeing increases in people seeking and being screened for treatment.

Incarceration is similarly misused to address problems associated with mental illness. As people struggle to access mental health care, untreated mental illness is criminalized. The Los Angeles County jail system has become the largest provider of mental health care in the United States, and jails across the country are filled with people who would be far better served with community-based treatment. For people with mental health care needs, being subject to the conditions of jails and prisons can exacerbate negative symptoms and trap people in a cycle of incarceration. Voters support policies that expand access to affordable mental health care treatment. In Philadelphia, voters in the 2023 mayoral primary ranked solutions like increasing mental health services and drug addiction programs and offering more jobs far above adding police or passing more punitive bail laws.

When it comes to policing, people don’t simply want “more cops on the street.” Nationally, 58 percent of voters polled agree that “we keep expecting the police to solve every social problem, from kids skipping school to mental illness to homelessness to gun violence. No one profession can do that.”

Voters want police who place value on building trust with the communities they serve, and they recognize that this is the way to generate real results. Research has made clear the problems associated with “stop-and-frisk” policing, for example, and the harms caused by the over-policing of communities. In fact, polling found that 61 percent of voters see “building trust between police and community” as an effective strategy. Vera Action’s polling found that a winning message focuses on “supporting police who put their lives on the line for us every day and holding those who use excessive force or abuse their power accountable,” rather than simply adding 100,000 more police officers to the ranks. Voters also ranked jobs, good housing, good schools, and well-lit streets over police in the factors that make them feel safe in their neighborhoods.

The message is clear. Voters—especially young voters—are not interested in failed “tough-on-crime” tactics. They want candidates who are going to build safer communities through investments in health care, education, and jobs. They want candidates who agree that the path to public safety is not responding to crime with police and prisons, but by preventing harm in the first place.