Poll: Three-Fourths of Americans Oppose Central Plank of FIRST STEP Act

Respondents back Trump opposition to release for drug dealers

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October 11, 2018

An overwhelming majority of Americans oppose a federal sentencing change which would grant early release to those convicted of dealing hard drugs, a new poll released Thursday shows.

These results suggest that Americans would be unlikely to support the FIRST STEP Act, a criminal justice reform bill which has stalled out in the Senate following President Donald Trump's withdrawal of support, but which a coalition of Democrats and reform-minded Republicans still hope to pass in the next session.

The survey was administered by ORC International and commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice, a group which represents the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, who are opposed to FIRST STEP. ORC asked respondents if they would "support or oppose a proposal to reduce penalties for traffickers in heroin, fentanyl, and similar drugs?" with 74 percent saying they would oppose the proposal. Majorities opposed the idea across all demographic groups, including both genders, three races, and all age groups.

This response matters because FIRST STEP's primary effect, if implemented, would be to reduce the number of federal prisoners by altering the system's "good time" credit rules, making it easier for convicts to be released early if they completed certain education, training, and other reformatory programs. Importantly, the good time credit expansion would not apply to violent offenders. But, as opponents of the bill—including Trump—have protested, the expansion would apply to federal drug offenders, over 99 percent of whom are traffickers.

ORC further polled respondents on how they would feel if their congressional representative backed such a proposal. While 7 percent said it would make no difference, 66 percent said they would think less highly of their representative, and only 19 percent said they would think more highly. A majority also said that the federal government was not tough enough on handling drug trafficking, likely reflecting public awareness of the ongoing fentanyl crisis.

Women were slightly more likely to believe the government was not tough enough, as were Whites, although majorities of black and Hispanic respondents believed the government was at the right amount of harshness or insufficiently harsh when it came to dealing with drug traffickers.

The reasonable conclusion, the FSJ noted, is that the general public agrees with its opposition to the bill.

"Law enforcement organizations have soundly rejected these proposals, noting their endangerment to law-abiding Americans and the additional leverage they would provide to criminal gangs and drug cartels," the group said in a release. "This new survey confirms that the American people share the same concerns."

As the Washington Free Beacon has previously reported, President Trump is unlikely to support the bill if it contains the reduced time for federal drug offenders—and as goes the president, so goes the Senate Republican caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) indicated Wednesday that he might be willing to bring the bill up over the dissent of his caucus if it could pass the 60-vote cloture threshold, although it is unclear if he will preserve this commitment following the midterms.