Bringing the "Science of Communication" to Criminal Justice Advocacy

When criminal justice advocates gather in Martha’s Vineyard this August to reflect on the progress of, and challenges to, their advocacy, they will have the benefit of new communications science research. For the last four years I have been part of a group of social scientists, lawyers and practitioners – led by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law and the FrameWorks Institute (and funded by the Ford and Rosenberg Foundations) – who have applied the “science of communications” to the issue of criminal justice reform.

This effort is distinctive in some important ways. First, we have been highly engaged with the criminal justice field. For instance, we have convened several meetings (large and small, at both the national and state levels) of policy analysts, advocates and criminal justice officials. This ensures that the research we conduct actually reflects the policies that experts believe are important for the public to consider, as well as the field’s hypotheses and speculations about what works (and what doesn’t).

Additionally, this work is comprehensive – not a focus group here and a poll there. We have reviewed over 500 communications and policy documents. This engagement provided depth and texture to our qualitative and quantitative methods. In all, we surveyed over 10,000 Americans. It is fair to say, then, that our project has been driven by a powerful blend of substantive information and analytic rigor. We have brought “communications science” to the already well-developed policy science that informs criminal justice advocacy.

What has our research found? What shapes public thinking about criminal justice issues?

  1. People generally understand the system in terms of the first responders they encounter in their day-to-day lives (e.g., cops, firefighters).
  1. There is a strong sense that the government is responsible for providing criminal justice services; however, people also believe that the government is corrupt, inefficient and generally incapable of doing this work.
  1. People reason that individuals are rational actors and that crime is the result of a deliberative process of consciously weighing the costs and benefits of a given action. However, African-Americans and Latinos were more likely to cite structural inequities as the cause of crime.
  1. People have conflicting views on what “fair” means when it comes to the criminal justice system. At times, people reason that “fair” means uniformly applying rules and punishments irrespective of context and circumstances; at other times, “fair” means considering the context surrounding an offense when making sentencing decisions (e.g., criminal history, mental health and upbringing).
  1. Finally, the public adheres to a fatalistic view: Crime is caused by bad people but government is corrupt and inefficient. From this perspective, we can’t really hope to improve the system, and the best we can do is “lock ’em up.”

Alongside these dominant ways of thinking are a set of more productive, but highly recessive, cultural models. For example, people can appreciate the importance of broader ecological factors in crime. And when they do, they are more likely to entertain policy- and resource-based solutions. The challenge lies in pushing the closing ways of thinking to the background and engaging the more productive patterns of reasoning.

These findings are important in that they focus our efforts on the exact places in the public mind where thinking is breaking down, allowing policy experts to be truly strategic and efficient in their public engagement efforts.

So what does this research mean for my colleagues as they head up to New England?

My perspective comes from the Harvard-FrameWorks collaboration; from my day job as dean of a professional school that trains policy analysts, NGO advocates and social service managers (and has many alums in the field who are joining the ranks of experts); and as a researcher who has spent the last 20 years writing on the topic. I offer five observations that the new research findings inform.

Don’t Confuse the Policy Science with the Communications Science

A common misperception is that the empirical science of a field is the same as communicating about that science. Advocates know a great deal about the technical and operational aspects of their issue. They also spend a lot of time talking to either other advocates or professionals in the field. The people that advocates are typically talking to, then, are folks who understand their acronyms, get the inherent complexities of the work, and share a clear-eyed view of how to get to the desired policy outcome.

When expert talk is used to communicate to the public, however, people’s eyes glaze over and they fall back on the most accessible ways of thinking about the issue. And these dominant modes of reasoning typically do not align with the systemic changes advocates want.

Fortunately, there is a “science of communications” emerging across the fields of cognitive linguistics, cultural anthropology, political psychology and policy studies. The FrameWorks Institute, for example, has pioneered a multi-method analytic and practice-based approach that provides advocates with strong empirical evidence for how, why and when some messages work and others don’t. The quick recap of the findings outlined above is the result of such a process.

All Values Aren’t Created Equal

Our findings make it clear that simply choosing a value that prima facie appears to be a reasonable way to guide public thinking is a mistake. Using a large-scale experimental survey (N=8000), we tested four values (derived from our qualitative analysis and review of advocates’ communications materials) – Fairness, Prevention, Cost/Efficiency and Pragmatism. To see how these values were used in our experiments, I encourage you to refer to the FrameWorks website.

The central finding was that Pragmatism is a highly effective value in shifting people from an individual to a systems understanding of the causes of crime and in increasing support for progressive policy reforms. None of the other values was successful in moving support and, in some cases, actually lowered policy support. So it’s not just any old value that should be used to frame a public-facing communication; rather, it’s matching tool to task so that the value you invoke elicits the policies you want considered.

Using Numbers by Themselves Will Not “Set You Free”

It is common practice for criminal justice advocates to communicate using numbers, particularly numbers regarding rates of incarceration. To test the effectiveness of this practice, we examined three sets of facts: Neutral Facts (statistics with no mention of groups or cross-national comparisons), Racial Facts (statistics about the disproportionate incarceration of people of color) and International Facts (statistics comparing the U.S. system to other nations). The fact is that exposure to the “facts” had either no or negative effects.

This is not surprising to many of us. Unframed facts lead people to default to the dominant pattern of reasoning. If the facts support their beliefs, people will accept them; if the facts are counter to their dominant belief, they will reject them or reason them away.

There is a Productive Way to Talk about Race

Nowhere does the science of communications prove more useful than when it comes to talking about race and the criminal justice system. Indeed, our findings run counter to the communications advice advocates typically hear (e.g., “don’t talk about race” or “lead with race”). How did we unravel the race question?

We designed an experiment that combined each value with one of three sets of facts. What we found was fascinating – exposure to the combination of Pragmatism with Racial Facts produced two important results: heightened belief that environmental factors play a central role in causing crime, and increased support for a range of progressive policy reforms. This coupling seems to inoculate against blaming the individual, while at the same time getting over the hump of partisan gridlock and fatalism. Even more encouraging, this combination is particularly robust when it comes to matters of juvenile justice. Again, I urge you to consult the FrameWorks website to see an example of this execution as out-the-door messaging.

So you can talk about race/disparities in the criminal justice system. But it is a question of how and in what order you talk about race. In this instance, leading the conversation with the value proposition that we need to be much more practical in designing the criminal justice system, combined with the fact that people of color are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, allows people to understand why certain reforms are necessary.

Can I Get a Witness?

I’ve been lucky to be witness to, and part of, an exciting new field – “the science of communications.” Interestingly, my policy, planning and social service students have increasingly asked for communications courses, workshops and trainings. I have managed to teach a course in strategic communications and social justice issues during my six-year tenure as dean of the Luskin School. The students come from across campus – e.g., Public Health, Law, Education, Political Science and Sociology – which speaks to the growing demand for the science of communications.

Communicating about social issues is not just listening to a couple of focus groups, or simply a matter of art. Rather, it is best when based on the emerging science of communications. And remember, no matter how great the communications strategy is, advocates must first have a “strategy” strategy. The good news, in our view, is that the field is ripe with any number of thoughtful solutions; the challenge is to “till the soil” so that smart recommendations can flourish. To this end, we strongly commend to the field the results of our efforts over the past two years.


Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. is Dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and a Senior Fellow at the FrameWorks Institute.




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