A recent survey of registered Texas voters has revealed that a majority of those questioned support significant sentencing reform for juvenile and nonviolent drug offenders. According to the poll results of more than 500 Texas voters conducted in December 2016, over three-quarters of respondents felt that 17-year-old defendants should be sentenced as juveniles rather than as adults, while almost 90 percent were in favor of some alternative to incarceration for certain low-level and nonviolent drug offenses. These poll results appear to indicate widespread electoral support for a number of criminal justice reform measures currently being considered by the Texas Legislature.
Sentencing reform has been picking up steam as a key issue in Texas for some time, and the results of December’s survey seem to demonstrate that a majority of Texans are on board with the efforts. Specifically, the poll found that 78 percent of Texas voters were in favor of 17-year-olds being handled by the juvenile justice system with judges retaining discretion to transfer them to the adult system based on the specifics of each case. In regards to drug offenders, the survey revealed that 87 percent of Texas voters supported placement into drug treatment programs or community supervision rather than prison for minor nonviolent drug offenses, while 82 percent of all respondents believed that possession of a small quantity of drugs should be reclassified as a misdemeanor rather than the current felony classification. On a related issue, 82 percent of questioned Texan voters believed that technical parole violations should result in alternative accountability measures rather than further incarceration.
What do these poll results indicate?
First, in regards to the question of whether 17-year-olds should being treated as juveniles, sentiment in Texas seems to be swinging heavily in line with the rest of the country. Currently, Texas is among only six states that regularly treat 17-year-olds as adults for criminal offenses.
Second, this poll revealed that sentencing reform support was roughly equal across both registered Democrats and registered Republicans, revealing bipartisan support for the bills currently in front of the Texas Legislature. On the question of the age of criminal responsibility, the Texas House has already approved a measure that would raise the age to 18; the bill will now be considered by the Texas Senate. Bills looking to tackle issues related to low-level nonviolent drug offenses are also in the process of moving through the Texas Legislature. Considering the opioid epidemic our country is currently facing, rehabilitation, rather than incarceration, seems to be the better route.
The poll was commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice on the behalf of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition. The Coalition’s stated goal is to see “more effective criminal justice policies,” and Kathryn Freeman, the director of one of the Coalition’s member groups, believes that the survey’s results demonstrate that Texans widely support these efforts.