Polling Shows Bipartisan Support in California for Releasing People from Prison Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

As COVID-19 continues to spread across California and into the state’s detention facilities, a new statewide survey of voters shows broad support for releasing people from prison—including the elderly, people with medical conditions that place them at higher risk of severe illness or death, and those with less than a year remaining on their sentences.

The data, released Thursday in a report by The Justice Collaborative Institute and Data for Progress, comes as the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections inside California’s prison system continues to rise, posing a growing threat that could soon border on humanitarian disaster. While county officials across California have worked to reduce jail populations in response to the pandemic, the urgency and breadth of the public health crisis calls for immediate action by Governor Newsom to release tens of thousands of people who can be safely returned to their families and communities, according to the report’s authors, Lara Bazelon, professor of law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, and Kyle C. Barry, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative.

“At stake is the health not only of incarcerated people, but of the correctional staff whose job requires interacting with them daily and in unavoidably close quarters. They are part of the critical workforce on the frontlines against COVID-19, putting their safety and the safety of their families on the line every day to do their jobs,” the report says. “Simply put, this is a matter of our mutual survival. That is why doctors, reform advocates, judges, and law enforcement officials have embraced this decarceration strategy, which both conservative and liberal voters support.”

“We are asking Governor Newsom to act now,” Bazelon said, “because this is a matter of life and death.”

The polling shows that voters share these concerns, with some bipartisan agreement:

  • 58 percent of Californians, including a majority of Republicans, support releasing anyone charged with an offense that does not involve a serious physical safety risk to the community.
  • 61 percent, including 55% of Republicans, support releasing elderly incarcerated people.
  • 56 percent support releasing people who have medical conditions that place them at higher risk, including those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes.
  • A majority (55%) support releasing individuals who have fewer than 12 months remaining on their sentences—a number 22 percentage points higher than those who oppose (33%).
  • And a majority of California voters (51%) support following practices adopted in other countries, and releasing incarcerated people as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus and to ensure compliance with public health guidance—with +15% somewhat or strongly supporting over those who oppose. 

The full polling memo is available here.

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