Truth in Sentencing: We Like the Symbolism, But Have Mixed Feelings About the Practical Policy

Two-thirds of Wisconsin voters support truth in sentencing, the 1998 law that abolished parole in the state and required prisoners to serve the full term of their sentences.  At the same time, a majority of Wisconsin voters (54.5 percent) agreed that once a prisoner serves half of his term, he should be released and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.  These seemingly inconsistent opinions point to complex, mixed feelings about sentencing policy in the state.

The numbers come from the Marquette Law School Poll, which earlier this week released the results of its latest survey of Wisconsin voters regarding politics and public policy.  This edition of the poll included a rich array of questions relating to truth in sentencing.  (Full disclosure: I collaborated in the design of these questions with Poll Director Charles Franklin and Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department.)

The poll results this year were remarkably consistent with results from a year ago, when some of the same questions were posed.  Last July, 63% supported truth in sentencing, while 55% supported release opportunities at the half-way mark.  An even more decisive two-thirds majority supported awarding credits toward early release to recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments, which also violates truth in sentencing (at least in the particularly hard-line way in which it was adopted in Wisconsin).

What gives?

Darren and I will be undertaking a more systematic analysis of the data, but, for now, I can highlight a few ideas that emerge from responses to other questions in this month’s poll.

One important source of complexity in this area is that the public seems uncertain and divided over whether sentencing policies should be evaluated based on instrumental or symbolic considerations.  An instrumentally good sentencing policy is one that enhances public safety in a cost-effective way.  A symbolically good sentencing policy is one that expresses an ideal or value with which we would like to be associated.

When we asked respondents whether prisoners should be released at the half-way mark and given a less costly form of punishment if they can demonstrate they are no longer a threat, we were implicitly inviting our respondents to think in instrumental terms — the ideas of cost and safety figure centrally in the wording of the question.

But, when we asked about truth in sentencing, we moved respondents to a much more symbolically rich terrain.  After all, when we think about truth-telling, we often think of it as a virtue in its own right and without regard to its consequences — it’s simply the “right thing to do.”

And there is some indication in the poll results that TIS may be valued more on symbolic than instrumental grounds: while nearly three-quarters of respondents said that TIS “sends a message that society will not tolerate crime,” a smaller number (57.4%) agreed that TIS “helps to reduce crime and make Wisconsin safer.”  Indeed, the number of respondents who support TIS actually exceeded the number who felt that TIS has public-safety benefits, which presumably indicates that some of the support for TIS is purely symbolic in character.

These are similar to last year’s findings, which also included majority support for the proposition that “even if [TIS] does not reduce crime, it would still be the right thing to do.”

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, there is an intriguing body of experimental research suggesting that we each have two distinct mental processes by which we reach moral judgments, one more harshly punitive and the other more nuanced and multidimensional.  Depending on how the questions are framed, one process or other may be triggered, leading to different judgments regarding the same scenario.

Something similar may be reflected in the poll data.  The “release when safe” question was framed one way, the TIS question was framed another, and the result was a seemingly contradictory set of responses.

There are important lessons here for those who would reform Wisconsin’s TIS law.  They will have to overcome powerful, positive symbolic associations with TIS, either by reframing the debate in instrumental terms and/or by establishing positive symbolic associations for their own side.

There may be some hope for them in another question from the poll earlier this month.  Respondents were asked which of two statements came closer to their own views:

Statement A:

Prisons are a government spending program, and just like any other government program, they should be put to the cost-benefit test. States should analyze their prison populations and figure out if there are offenders in expensive prison cells who can be safely and effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost.


Statement B:

People who commit crimes belong behind bars, end of story. It may cost a lot of money to run prisons, but it would cost society more in the long run if more criminals were on the street.

Statement A won a clear victory, 55.3% to 39.6%, which seems to signal considerable support for instrumental, cost-benefit approaches.

But, interestingly, note that Statement A may subtly invoke some symbolic considerations, too — the statement implicitly invites us to associate ourselves with skepticism of government and the ideal of holding government officials accountable (goverment should be “put to the test”).  Other parts of the poll suggest that large majorities of respondents might want to associate themselves with just these positions: 62.5% agreed that “you really can’t trust government to do the right things”; 78.9% said “the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves”; and a whopping 87.4% agreed that “people in the government waste a lot of the money we pay in taxes.”

Incarceration, of course, really is (among other things) a government spending program, and reminding voters of that may prove a helpful tactic for those who seek reduce the size of our prison population.

The Poll also included some very interesting responses regarding the preferred design of an earned release program for prisoners, but I will save discussion of that for a later post.