Treat, don’t jail drug users, poll says

(File photo from ABC News)

RICHMOND – Most Virginians agree that people who use heroin or abuse prescription drugs should receive treatment, not jail time, according to a statewide poll.

More than six out of 10 respondents believe heroin users should be offered treatment instead of being arrested and charged with a crime, the 2017 Public Policy Poll by Virginia Commonwealth University found. Seven out of 10 felt the same way about prescription drug abusers.

Citizens surveyed also voiced support for treatment programs instead of incarceration for nonviolent offenders who suffer from mental illness. The poll said 88 percent of respondents said mentally ill nonviolent offenders should be required to participate in community-based treatment programs instead of incarcerated. That feeling was shared by Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, said the survey “demonstrates support for the governor’s initiatives with regard to mental health and combating the opioid epidemic.”

“Virginians view opioid abusers and those experiencing lack of treatment for mental illness as an increasingly difficult issue plaguing communities and that treatment options should be available for these users,” Moran said.

The poll was conducted by the Center for Public Policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Officials released the results at a news conference this week.

The survey involved telephone interviews in December with a representative sample of 1,000 adults across Virginia. The poll had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

Besides asking about addiction and mental health issues, the survey also asked about police community relations. About three-quarters of poll respondents believe police in their community treat people fairly, do a good job handling race relations and use the appropriate amount of force in dealing with suspects.

“Public perceptions of police in our community are key to the maintenance of public safety,” said Robyn McDougle, faculty director of the Office of Public Policy Outreach and associate professor of criminal justice at the Wilder School.

“As many communities around the country are addressing dismal community police relations, Virginians’ perceptions of police are very favorable, which is a testament to the continual training and outreach that our police departments have done and continue to do around the commonwealth.”

Citizens are not as confident in the ability of public safety agencies to respond to acts of terrorism in Virginia, the survey found. Almost three of every four respondents indicated they were concerned about that.

“Terrorist attacks around the world are becoming regularly reported news events, and the commonwealth’s proximity to the nation’s capital has kept concerns regarding personal safety at the forefront of our citizens’ thoughts. Recent poll responses highlight the need for continual community conversations and preparations,” McDougle said.

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