"Good Choices" Are a Good Thing, Right? Avoiding the Rational Actor Trap in Framing Public Safety (Part 2 of 3)

Imagine an advocacy campaign for criminal justice reform that goes something like this…

 Jobs not jails. Schools not cells.

Let’s empower our youth to choose success by building the good schools and jobs opportunities they deserve.

On the face of it, that seems like a pretty solid message.  It points to the importance of community factors like schooling and employment, even as it appeals to a strong ethic of success that resonates with most Americans.  Do a quick review of our media landscape, and it’s pretty clear that Americans love stories about individuals who take responsibility for their lives and find success through hard work and good decision-making. So what if we can get people thinking about criminal justice reform by appealing to this strong individualist sensibility?  Seems like that could work, right?

Not so fast…

In its research on how Americans think about public safety and the criminal justice system, conducted with funding from the Ford Foundation and in collaboration with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the Harvard Law School, and Behind the Cycle, the criminal justice advocacy group, the FrameWorks Institute has found that members of the American public consistently apply a rational actor model to their thinking about how and why crime happens.  As our report suggests, when applying this model, Americans “explained that individuals commit crimes because they have weighed the costs, benefits and risks associated with an act and then made a conscious choice or decision to break the law.”  In short, according to this model, most people who commit crimes choose to do so.

Our research showed two further conclusions that flowed from this rational actor model, both of which emerged as dominant patterns of thinking among members of the American public.

  1. Because the model suggests that individuals consciously choose to commit crimes, then it’s only “right” that they be held fully responsible for their actions as individuals.
  2. The only way to improve public safety is to increase mechanisms of deterrence – in particular by making punishments harsher.

To quote again from the report:

“If crime results from a conscious calculation of weighted costs and benefits, increasing the costs through harsher punishments becomes the logical solution to the problem. Moreover, the application of the rational-actor model in thinking about causation renders a host of alternative solutions — things like more appropriate sentencing or alternatives to incarceration — difficult to rationalize and support.”

In short, our research suggests that if and when this rational actor model is triggered in thinking, the public will quickly (1) default to blaming individuals for crime, muting attention to systemic and ecological factors, and (2) then be predisposed to calls for more punitive approaches to improving public safety via harsher mechanisms in the criminal justice system.

So what are the communications implications?

  1. Avoid invoking “decision-making” or “good choices” in your communications.   They will focus attention on the individual actor and mute attention to macro-forces that are in play.
  2. Give attention to systemic and ecological factors – economic, educational, and community-level.  Invoke the value of prevention at these systems levels.

It’s important to note that the public does recognize that our criminal justice system needs reform, including the recognition that some crimes are being punished too harshly and that the system often does not live up to the standard of fairness. So there are shared contours in public thinking that show promise for advocacy communications efforts.  The FrameWorks report Caning, Context and Class: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Public Safety describes these contours and provides an early set of communications recommendations.  This report is an early part of a larger, multi-method project that is still underway and which seeks to develop more effective ways to communicate about the challenges facing America’s criminal justice system and to provide justice reform advocates with specific recommendations for reframing the issue of public safety. So more research findings and recommendations are still to come…

In the meantime, be sure to steer clear of the rational actor trap!

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