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Reframing the justice argument
Philippa Budgen is the first guest blogger in a new occasional series dedicated to new ways of engaging the public in justice reform.

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Philippa Budgen (@PhilippaBudgen) is a Trustee of Transform Justice and is the first guest blogger in a new occasional series based on a report published earlier this year by the Frameworks Institute entitled, New Narratives: Changing the Frame on Crime and Justice which argues that justice reformers need to change their approach if they want to engage public support. Philippa is an independent media consultant, specialising in criminal justice. 

New narratives

While experts focus on rehabilitation as a primary purpose of the criminal justice system, the public focuses on retribution. A critical communications task is to help members of the public understand how the criminal justice system can more effectively resettle offenders in their communities’  New Narratives, Frameworks Institute

Mind the gap.

The gap between justice reformers and popular opinion.

Typically most people believe prison exists to punish.  That punishment deters crime and that retribution is desirable. Reformers by contrast largely think the primary purpose of courts, sentences and prison is not to punish but to rehabilitate.  Any reform of the system simply involves more of the same from each. Such differing views present a major challenge when communicating the need for significant change. The Frameworks Institute’s report, New Narratives doesn’t shy away from this uncomfortable gap. It offers people advocating change a different way to get across their message.

More than 6000 people, the general public and justice experts alike, were surveyed/interviewed for this robust study, providing evidence of what type of reform narratives work. Importantly too, which don’t.  As a media consultant specialising in criminal justice, it’s been a wake-up call (in a good way) to myself and many others communicating to win public support for justice reform.

frameworks gap

Mapping the gap: Experts and Public Understanding of the Criminal Justice System

So how to bridge that communications gap? One answer could be a surprisingly simple message; good rehabilitation reduces crime and keeps society safer. What the research shows is when the debate is re-framed in terms of returning offenders successfully and safely to their communities there is greater public appetite for reform and rehabilitation. In particular, people showed most flexibility on minor, non-violent crimes. In these cases, they were willing to consider prison was not the answer. People thought alternative non-custodial sentences might be better. The report makes it clear in a slightly understated way, ‘This represents a significant communications opportunity.

That was the theory in July this year, so what happens in practice? Fast forward to October and a report by MPs on the influential cross-party Justice Select Committee. Gone is the language of punishment and retribution, replaced by a mature focus on non-punitive solutions. MPs demanded a radical overhaul of the treatment of 18- 25 year olds in the criminal justice system.

Extending the upper age of Young Offender Institutions to 25, trialling new specialist young adult problem-solving courts, In short, telling the Ministry of Justice to stop ‘tinkering about the edges’ and get on with developing a systematic new approach.  In the words of the committee’s press release:‘Dealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for them in making successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood’.

This could have resulted in the same old tired headlines ‘MPs gone soft on young thugs’. It didn’t. How the MPs framed the report almost certainly made a difference. Not just in terms of helping young people but also reducing crime to benefit society. The use of scientific studies made it all the more accessible. Showing that most people’s brains don’t mature until they’re 25, with the criminal justice system failing to accommodate this.  The reason this mattered to the committee?  As they pointed out, this age group commits more crimes and re-offends more than any other age group. Further bridging the communications gap, they also emphasized that young adults have the greatest potential to stop offending.

The media coverage was encouragingly positive. Headlines like Offenders aged 18 – 25 need more attention to deter crime, say MPs’ 

BBC TV news, chat show Victoria Live, most national newspapers and Radio 4’s Today programme. Of course the media didn’t slavishly follow the reform agenda. That’s how the media is. But it gave the argument for rehabilitation a fairer crack of the whip than normal.

 So a small measure of success for the Framework theory. Good messaging can’t overcome deeply rooted public prejudice overnight.  No-one expects a brief burst of positive publicity to bring about instant reform. These are small steps in the right direction. The gap between those who want more punishment and those who want less is considerable. Experts can hold true to their beliefs and push for reform by adapting how they reach out across that communication gap to convince a reluctant public.


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