The poll found that 81 percent of Marylanders support sending people who are convicted of possessing illegal drugs to treatment programs instead of prison and that 15 percent are opposed. The proposal is supported by a majority across every major demographic and political group, although there were some key differences.
Democrats are among the groups most supportive of a treatment-based approach to drug offenders, with 87 percent preferring treatment to prison. The level of support slides to 69 percent among Republicans, with independents in the middle at 81 percent.
The poll found the weakest support for drug treatment as an alternative to prison among self-described conservatives, where it dropped to 67 percent. More than eight in 10 self-described moderates (86 percent) and liberals (89 percent) support treatment models.
There was no significant racial divide on this question, with 86 percent of African Americans and 82 percent of whites supporting treatment instead of prison for drug offenders.
Looking at another legislative proposal, the Post-U. Md. survey asked whether lawmakers should change penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, including releasing prisoners earlier and moving away from mandatory minimum sentences. Roughly 7 in 10 Marylanders (71 percent) support those combined proposals, with support again crossing political and demographic lines.
Support for reducing penalties peaks among black men — a group significantly more likely than others to be affected by these policies — at 81 percent. Support is nearly as high among black women (76 percent), but dips to 71 percent among white men and 66 percent among white women.
The poll also found generational differences on the issue, with 81 percent of Marylanders ages 18 to 34 supporting reduced penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, compared with about 7 in 10 residents ages 35 to 64 and roughly 6 in 10 seniors.
College graduates are also more likely favor such a proposal (79 percent) than those who have not graduated from college (67 percent). The difference is wider among white college graduates and whites without degrees — just 6 in 10 whites without college degrees approve reducing illegal drug usage penalties, compared with 79 percent of white college graduates.
Democrats are also significantly more supportive of more lenient sentences (79 percent) than Republicans (55 percent); 71 percent of independents support reduced penalties.
The findings are similar to those of a poll conducted in October, which found that 69 percent of Marylanders support shortening prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in the state and that 26 percent opposed such a policy.
Nationally, opposition to mandatory minimum sentences has risen in recent years. More than 6 in 10 (63 percent) of Americans in a 2014 Pew Research Center poll said it was a “good thing” that states have moved away from mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, up from 47 percent in a 2001 survey.
The Washington Post-University of Maryland poll was conducted March 30 to April 3 among a random sample of 1,503 Maryland adults on landline and cellular phones, conducted in partnership with Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship. Results among the total sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.0 percentage points.
Ovetta Wiggins and Scott Clement contributed to this report.