SACRAMENTO — In a reversal, a poll shows Californians now overwhelmingly view prison crowding as a crisis big enough to justify the state's new multibillion-dollar construction program — a reflection of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's sway over public opinion.

Before the governor's push for prison spending, the public historically had "not placed a high priority" on prison woes, said Mark Baldassare, director of the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California.

An institute survey released Thursday also reaffirms that the public believes, more than ever, state prisons exist mostly to protect Californians and punish criminals — not rehabilitate.

Liberal Democratic lawmakers and prison-reform advocacy groups said the attitude won't help as they try to push the state toward stronger rehabilitation measures and major changes in parole and sentencing laws.

In overall findings, the poll shows nine in 10 Californians believe prison woes are a major or pressing problem — an increase over previous polls.

In a significant turnaround, the survey showsnearly two-thirds of the state's residents support the $8 billion prison construction and reform deal approved last month by the Republican governor and Democrat-dominated Legislature.

Several previous statewide polls have found Californians favor cuts to prison spending over any other area of the state budget.

Critics and supporters of the new prison-spending program attribute the reversal of public opinion to the governor, though he was acting under federal court orders to ease crowding, improve inmate health care and fix other woes.

"It was the result of Schwarzenegger's massive public-relations campaign," said Vanessa Huang, a spokeswoman for Oakland-based Justice Now.

In promoting and praising the prison-spending program, Schwarzenegger has called it "a major step forward" and a "commitment to public safety" for an entire generation, incorporating "strong" rehabilitation that "will make our streets safer."

The governor's use of lease-revenue bonds, repaid using state tax funds without voter approval at an election, also has helped generate "strong support" for huge spending on prisons, Baldassare said.

At the same time, analysts said, the survey revealed an undercurrent of conflicting attitudes that could affect the future of Schwarzenegger's evolving program and California's troubled prison system.

Californians are divided over the primary role of the prison system in society, except most believe it has to do with them. Some 35 percent say prisons exist to protect the public from crime, while 26 percent say prisons are there to punish inmates for what they have done.

Only 25 percent say prisons' primary role is to rehabilitate criminals, who inmate advocates said often are already disadvantaged before they commit crimes.

"Democrats are more likely than Republicans and independents to say rehabilitation, while Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to say protecting the public from crime," said Baldassare.

Critics of Schwarzenegger's reform effort said the survey reflects why the proposal will fall short of rehabilitation goals — causing little public concern — until funding for the ailing system begins to chew fiscally at other public services such as education, transportation and social services.

Representatives of prison reform advocacy coalitions said the program relies too heavily on expanding the prison system.

The Coalition for Effective Public Safety and Californians United for a Responsible Budget instead want more emphasis on rehabilitation such as education, vocational training, and drug treatment, as well as major changes in parole policy and sentencing laws.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced numerous bills to change the way California handles criminals. But authors acknowledge significant measures, such as those addressing the popular "Three Strikes" sentencing law, face opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats. 

"It's an uphill battle to change people's attitude about prison reform when they believe prisons are to protect the public from crime or punish prisoners," said Huang, whose Justice Now group is one of 40 in the Californians United for a Responsible Budget coalition.

The public's attitude, in turn, influences lawmakers, posing "a huge challenge" for advocacy groups trying to promote reform bills and an "immense barrier" as they attempt to alter the direction of the governor's program, Huang said.

Schwarzenegger signed the state prison-spending program into law May 3. The telephone survey of 2,005 Californians was conducted May 15-22. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.