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Reframing crime and justice arguments
Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice guest posts on reframing crime and justice arguments to achieve progressive change.

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Improving communications

“We must never forget that to commit crime is to make a choice. There is, however, a sliding scale of increasing inevitability that we cannot ignore. The drivers are clear – it’s a lack of prospects, chaotic lifestyles, ill-health and addiction. All these underlying causes of crime can so often be addressed much more effectively by looking beyond custody, to the right interventions that really will support offenders to change their ways. If we can do that and bring down crime, why would we do anything else?”

When Minister for Justice, Robert Buckland, launched the recent sentencing white paper he expressed two of the seemingly conflicting core beliefs people hold about those who commit crime – that they make a rational pre-meditated choice to offend, and that there are factors beyond their control, which drive them to make those choices. Last week Transform Justice brought together a panel of speakers with scars on their back from their efforts to reframe the narrative on why people commit crime and what can be done about it. The event, which marked the launch of our new guide to communicating about criminal justice, was both a celebration of sector unity and a clarion call to communicate better. On the panel were organisations which had been coached in reframing messages about crime and punishment.

Andrew Neilson of the Howard League, explained why he was open to a new approach “there is only so long you can bang your head against a brick wall, without thinking you have to try something different”. This involves avoiding fatalism and always establishing why a particular CJS issue matters, what the problem is and how the problem can be resolved. Stephen Bell, Chief Executive of Changing Lives, feels that the sector needs to tell more positive stories and stop being “mood hoovers”. Changing Lives’ strap line is “the power of positive change”.

The reframing research suggests values are key to engaging people with criminal justice issues. Facts on their own can be a turn off. The FrameWorks Institute tested potential values to see which inspired interest and support for progressive reform. Of those which tested best, it was the value of human potential which appealed most to Stephen and to Sherry Peck, Chief Executive of Safer London – a criminal justice system which ensures everyone has the opportunity to achieve their potential so they can contribute to society.

Sherry had used reframing to support a culture change within her organisation. As leader of an organisation working with young people, she criticised the media narrative of feral youth rampaging through the mean streets of London. And felt that her organisation had colluded in that. Nowadays Safer London doesn’t talk about knife crime or serious youth violence, but about young people who are affected by violence.

The pros and cons of case studies

Everyone on the panel agreed on the need to use non-stigmatising language (person who… rather than offender). But there was a difference of opinion about “case studies” – whether charities should put forward their own clients or contacts to the media. Stephen and Sherry now refuse to give the media “case studies”. Stephen pointed out that the stories stayed online forever and that the individuals described later either wanted to dissociate themselves from their former life (in a positive way) or had, occasionally, actually crashed and burned. Andrew Neilson agreed that there were immense risks in fielding potentially vulnerable people, but that with time and careful training, it could be done. They put forward to Newsnight a young woman who lived in unregulated accommodation as a child. She felt she had had a positive influence on the campaign to improve standards. So there is no consensus as to whether those with lived experience should share their stories with a thirsty media. Sherry Peck thought the sector “needed to find a more sophisticated way to challenge the narrative than plunder children’s stories”.

Anne Fox, Chief Executive of Clinks and Chris McCully, co-ordinator of the Scottish equivalent of Clinks (the Voluntary Sector Criminal Justice Forum) discussed the challenges of getting a whole sector to sing from the same hymn-book. Reframing crime and punishment only really works if everyone buys in to the same messages – to shift views we need endless repetition and reinforcement.

The reframing learning is that values and metaphors are the most powerful ways to communicate – they are both familiar and memorable. Anne Fox uses a metaphor based on gears useful and used in an article in the Times:

“If I drove my car in fifth gear most of the time, when the conditions didn’t suit, its performance would be affected. Imprisonment should be the fifth gear of the criminal justice system, with a purpose, for use in certain circumstances. But the car’s been driven in fifth too often, with overuse of imprisonment, of the wrong people, with the wrong sentences”…..

Anne is a practiced hand at reframing and not everyone can jump straight to using metaphors in their work. But our new guide includes lots of easy first steps for anyone who wants to dip their toe into reframing evidence – why not have a go?

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