Reframing Public Safety for Progressive Criminal Justice Reform (Part 1 of 3)

How do we effectively communicate to the public about the need to reform the criminal justice system? The FrameWorks Institute is working on a new project to provide a model for responding to the communications opportunities and challenges confronting criminal justice reform advocates.

There are many different ways experts and advocates might tell the story about the need to reform the criminal justice system. Some believe that a historical narrative about the legacies of a racial caste system is necessary in order to point to the racial disparities and bias that persist in today’s system.  Others believe that the current economic environment offers an opportunity to tell the American public how incredibly broken the current criminal justice system is.  Still others think we need to avoid all of these approaches, take the moral high ground, and simply tell a narrative about basic human rights.  Unfortunately, the cacophony of these many different stories often leaves the public confused and unsure as to why criminal justice reform is important and much needed.

For FrameWorks, a part of the answer to this question is that the field of public safety and criminal justice needs a stronger, more consistent, and strategic communications approach if it is to make headway on its goal of instituting a reformed criminal justice agenda.

Last month, FrameWorks published three reports on this issue. They include:

1- Public Safety: Framing a Reform Agenda

2- Caning, Context and Class – Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Public Safety

3 – Strengthen Communities, Educate Children and Prevent Crime: A Communications Analysis of Peer Discourse Sessions on Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform.

(You can view our new public safety issue page here:

The first report, Public Safety: Framing a Reform Agenda, is an analysis of the story of the field of public safety and criminal justice as told through expert and advocate communications materials, policy briefings, legislative testimony and websites.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Experts see that the law enforcement, sentencing, and corrections features of the criminal justice system all impact public safety, especially on the community-level;
  • Experts believe that crime stems largely from systemic and ecological factors — economic, educational, and the inequitable distribution of public services, including support services;
  • Rates of incarceration have grown 5-fold in the past 30 years due to, they believe, flawed, harsh, and biased sentencing policies, and in conjunction with the rise of the for-profit prison industry;
  • They see the criminal justice system, both adult and juvenile, is both unfair and unaccountable. We lack an evidence-base for providing accountability to better manage it;
  • They believe people of color, especially young black and Latino men, and immigrants are targeted; and
  • They see that the quality of the system needs to be addressed in terms of policy priorities, data management, the relationship between the adult and juvenile systems, sentencing, and in a host of other ways.

The findings presented in this report constitute a great starting point for evaluating where the public is in its thinking and to what extent does the public understand features of the criminal justice system.

At this point, the research is poised to address these additional questions: How does the public then respond to experts’ and advocates’ narratives? What assumptions does the public bring to their understanding about criminal justice reform? And, can these experts’ and advocates’ narratives can be used to cultivate public support for reforming criminal justice? If so, how?

In two upcoming posts, we will highlight the ongoing research that addresses these critical questions.


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