Communicators need to interrupt the dominant belief that severe punishment effectively reduces crime and increases public safety and replace it with new and better ways of thinking.
That’s the central premise of a new report: New Narratives: Changing the Frame on Crime and Justice developed by a partnership between Transform Justice, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, Clinks and the Criminal Justice Alliance, and sponsored by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation under the aegis of the FrameWorksInstitute.
The reports’ authors, Moira O’Neill, Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor and Andrew Volmert, argue that those working for criminal justice reform in the UK are working to advance a set of key policy reforms which are based on three interrelated critiques of the current system:
(1) there is an over-reliance on punishment,
(2) there is insufficient commitment to rehabilitation and
(3) there is a more general failure of services outside the criminal justice system – including those related to mental health, housing, addiction and poverty reduction – that provide people with the support they need to turn their lives around.
The authors argue that reformers agree they must address these systemic failures, but have yet to agree a shared communications strategy to build public support for reform.
They argue that a new narrative is needed which needs to answer four key questions in concrete terms:
- Why do crime and justice issues matter to society?
- How does the system work and what’s wrong with it?
- What needs to be done to address this issue?
- Why harsh punishment is an ineffective way to address crime and increase public safety.
The report is of particular interest because the arguments grow out of a substantial research base, summarised in this graphic:
The gap between expert & public understanding of crime
The report argues that expert arguments have been ineffective because experts see criminal justice very different from the general public as illustrated by the graphic below:
The authors argue that reformers need a coherent and memorable narrative which can be easily shared and disseminated. They set out both a series of key strategies and approaches that are counter-productive, summarised in the table below:
While some of these strategies are obvious form their description, others require more elaboration which I seek to do below.
The national progress value focuses on how the justice system currently generates poor outcomes for all of us – for society rather than just for offenders. It conveys the urgency of the problem and advances the belief that meaningful change is both possible and desirable and is illustrated by this quote:
Our outdated criminal justice system is holding our country back. We need to make changes to this system that will allow all of us to move forward. A criminal justice system that can improve outcomes for our communities and our country is key to making progress as a society.
The authors’ research found that “human potential” arguments are effective; orientating people towards rehabilitation and building support from crime prevention initiatives. This value focuses more on individual offenders, illustrated like this:
Changing the way our criminal justice system works is one way to make sure that all members of our society can reach their potential and contribute to our communities. This means giving people the support they need to stay out of trouble and dedicating resources to rehabilitation so those who have committed offences can add value to – rather than detract from – our society.
The researchers found that this value orientates people to the importance of moving away from punishment as the primary function and goal of the criminal justice system, helping them to focus on the outcomes we want to achieve – a safer, better-functioning society; again supported by an illustration:
We need to use a commonsense, step-by-step approach to solving problems and improving our criminal justice system. This means clarifying goals and establishing a set of tasks that we want the system to do, and then creating a criminal justice system that is aligned with these goals. If we focus our attention on creating a step-by-step plan for solving problems, we can decrease crime and improve public safety.
Justice gears metaphor
The authors argue that building public support for criminal justice reforms requires that communicators explain why alternatives are necessary and ultimately beneficial for offenders and their communities. The Justice Gears Metaphor argues that just as we need different gears for cycling up and down hills, we need different solutions for different problems in the justice system, rather than always relying on prison.
The metaphor highlights the need for alternatives to prison as well as the importance of strong social services outside the criminal justice system to prevent and reduce crime. The metaphor activates a more pragmatic and contextual way of thinking and directs people’s focus towards the importance of developing and implementing interventions that match experiences, circumstances and particular aspects of a situation.
This is a thoughtful and intriguing report which gains importance from the twin facts that it is based on a substantial survey with members of the public and that it doesn’t pretend that the process of criminal justice reform will be easy to achieve.
The ideas in the report are put forward as a template with reform-minded organisations and pressure groups encouraged to develop their own creative, authentic and meaningful versions of the suggested narrative and to share their experiences of this new approach.
The authors conclude by claiming that:
Real change will only occur if communicators unite around a common framing strategy and adopt and share a new story about criminal justice.