Framing Criminal Justice Reform: A Lesson From the New Yorker

In a recent New Yorker piece Adam Gopnik writes about mass incarceration in the U.S. It is an interesting piece and worth reading. In this blog I want to do a few of things. The first is to offer a critique of the piece from a framing perspective. In particular, I want to show how he violates several basic framing principles. Second, I want to take up the substantive part of the article and relate it to the FrameWorks project on communicating criminal justice reform. And third, I want to suggest a few things that I think are missing from the piece.

The most basic framing error is that the piece begins the conversation with two devices that detract from its real message. The first is drawing attention to the fact that incarceration dehumanizes people because it confines them to temporal purgatory. As Gopnick writes, “[T]he basic reality of American prisons is not that of lock and key but that of the lock and clock” (see the visual that accompanies the piece). I get his point and certainly agree with the basic premise, but it is not a very useful way to open a public conversation about criminal justice reform.

Given the racialization of crime (see Gilliam et al.,1996) and Americans concomitant fear of violent crime, it is easy for people to default to what they think they know about criminality – crime is violent and criminals are non-white. The point here is that evoking this line of reasoning leads people to easily discount the dehumanizing facet of incarceration. In other words, who cares if these perceived violent criminals – who don’t “look like me” – have to spend a great deal of alone time. They should! After all, you gotta do the time if you commit the crime. If you don’t want to spend the rest of your days in solitary or near solitary confinement, don’t beak the law. We have heard this causal sequence repeated time and again in our focus groups.

The second major framing flaw of Gopnick’s otherwise insightful article is that he buries the solution (and we can argue with some dimensions of it) several pages into the piece. So, after spending what I believe to be precious upfront prose on the psychological harm of incarceration, he reiterates the standard problem statement of America’s profile as one of the world’s leading jailers. This once again allows people to default to what they think they know about American criminality and makes it hard to activate a thoughtful conversation about criminal justice reform.

The third framing mistake is what we at FrameWorks Institute often call the “two-sides” frame. Borrowing frame Deborah Tannen’s book, The Argument Culture, we routinely see advocates present a dichotomous view of the problem. I know Gopnick is trying to provide historical and intellectual context, but in doing so he reminds people of the prevailing frames that already anchor the public discourse. By the time he gets to his major contribution, many readers will have already fallen into their routine default explanations of the problem.

The substantive part of his argument – and one worthy of consideration – is the notion that the real cause of crime reduction can be traced to the small changes that law enforcement has made to discourage violent criminal behavior at the street level. He calls these measures “small acts of social engineering”. Practices such as “hot-spot policing” which is the deployment of lots of cops where crimes happen, make a lot of sense. He also cites “stop and frisk” or profiling as another measure to control violent behavior. To be sure, this practice is controversial and prone to abuse. He claims that the tradeoff for minority communities is between a disproportionate number of people of color being stopped and a significant reduction in crime.

I am less confortable with the latter practice and think there may be better practices that get at the same dynamic and effect. For instance, my colleague at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Mark Kleiman has recently published a fascinating book called When Brute Force Fails. Kleiman’s take on social engineering is to make crime inconvenient for people. For example, he argues that parole violators should receive “swift and certain” punishment for infractions such as failing a drug test or missing meetings with their parole officer. The twist is, however, that the punishment should be very short-term, say a week or two, just enough to disrupt the criminals’ life and “profession” in such a way as to make it increasingly inconvenient to break the law. This model is currently being implemented in Hawaii with positive early results.

Finally, what is missing from the piece is the role that the media plays in fanning public fears about crime. TV news in particular continues to utilize the “if it bleeds, it leads” trope. Crime news is cheap to produce and is believed to deliver eyeballs to the screen. In a series of experimental studies with my colleague, Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University, we demonstrate the corrosive impact of TV crime news reporting on attitudes about crime and race. Getting a handle on the media coverage of crime will be an important piece of any serious effort at criminal justice reform.

The lesson: (1) don’t repeat bad frames, (2) get your unique contribution in the initial part of the communication, and (3) think about your media strategy in conjunction with your reframing techniques.


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