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Does diversion from court have an image problem?

Transform Justice on what the public thinks of diversion schemes.

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Most people don't know what diversion is

This is a guest post by Fionnuala Ratcliffe of Transform Justice.

Soft justice?

Diversion and out of court disposals (the ways in which the police can deal with people who commit crime without sending them to court) get a bad rep in the media, often labelled as “soft justice” and letting people off. This might go some way to explain why, over the last ten years, their use has declined by 80%. Does the negative media reflect public attitudes? To find out, Transform Justice commissioned public focus groups and a nationally representative survey of 2,000 people to find out what the public thought about diversion and out of court disposals, and what, if any, messaging we could  use to boost support for these policies.

The biggest challenge when communicating about diversion and out of court disposals is hardly anyone knows what they are. As one police officer told us: “people tend to have a very old fashioned view of what “justice” should look like, i.e. court hearing and prison sentence”. If people don’t understand diversion, they’ll default to the solutions they’re more familiar with (court and prison). How can we help people remember that diversion and out of court disposals exist?

  • Spelling things out in plain English helped. The terms – diversion and out of court disposals – did not mean much to people. The longer form phrase of “resolving crime without going to court” tested better
  • Adding examples also improved understanding. Not only that, they also increased support – a higher majority (74%) of people were supportive of the police diverting people from court when we gave specific examples than when we kept it generic.
  • The ultimate way to help people grasp a new concept is to use a metaphor like “justice gears”, which describes the criminal justice system as a bike with diversion and out of court disposals as the first and second gears. There are different gears for different situations, and if we overuse the high gears (imprisonment) the bike won’t work as well.

Understanding is one thing, but we also want to persuade people that resolving more crimes without going to court is a good idea. What lines of argument work to boost support, and which fall flat?

The good news is that the public are overall supportive of policies to resolve more crimes without going to court (58% supportive, compared to only 17% opposed). Most people agree that they tend to be a good use of police resources, a sensible response to crime and that they can help those who commit crime make positive change. There is scepticism, though. Those who responded to our survey weren’t convinced that these options can tackle the root causes of crime, deliver justice for victims or prevent future crimes.

Values

This is where values come in. By leading with values in our messaging, we not only pique people’s interest, but also increase support by connecting what we’re saying with values that people already hold.

Two values were effective at getting people to feel more warmly towards diversion from court:

  1. Pragmatism – a focus on problem-solving and solutions rather than theories and ideals. The ‘problem’ you’re solving could be how to reduce crime (resolving crimes without going to court is a pragmatic way to reduce crime and make our communities safer) or how to provide resolution for victims.
  2. Human potential – our response to crime should help people rehabilitate and contribute to our communities. People do believe in rehabilitation as a purpose of our criminal justice system. By tapping into this belief and explaining how diversion and out of court disposals can help rehabilitate people, we can increase support.

With both of these, we needed to back up our claims with evidence and case studies. As one focus group participant said: “I want to believe in the potential for people to change but I’m just not convinced. It sounds idealistic and naive.” Have a look at our briefing on the case for diversion and out of court disposals for recent evidence you could draw on to back up your claims.

Not all values work though. We tried out a “swift justice” argument (that diversion and out of court disposals are good because they allow crimes to be dealt with more quickly than in court). This is an argument ripe for the making at the moment, given long court backlogs and the steadily increasing court times. But the swift justice argument made people worry that justice would be rushed and therefore not done properly or fairly.

That leads on to another interesting finding, which was about the British public’s complicated relationship with our courts system. In focus groups, people were quick to voice negative views about court – that it’s posh, scary, slow, and stressful for victims. Nevertheless, they also saw it as the bedrock of our criminal justice system. Any language that (accidentally) implied a shrinking or replacement of courts – terms like “alternatives to court”, or “new” and “innovative” programmes – seemed to backfire and reduce support for diversion policies. People may support diversion and out of court disposals, but they still think courts play an important role

What does this mean for the court backlog and those communicating about it? Diversion and out of court disposals are definitely part of the solution to the backlog, but better to frame arguments around how they work to reduce crime and provide resolution for victims. Talking about how it will help get through cases faster didn’t work. 

Read more in our new messaging guide and if you are thinking about communicating publicly about diversion and out of court disposals, we’d love to hear from you.

 

Thanks to Kaleb Nimz for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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