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Now that policing strategies are squarely in the public eye, criminal justice system reform advocates are encouraging the public to take a step further and see the problems with policing as part of a larger, broken system. This is an area where reframing is going to be key.

What does a bike have to do with it? Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and David J. Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School published an opinion piece in The Boston Globe last month that lays out a new metaphor for thinking about the system:

This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated. It is as if we have been riding on an old bike with balloon tires and one speed even though we have far more sophisticated vehicles at our disposal. Imagine a public safety vehicle as a 21-speed bike, with enough flexibility to traverse any terrain.”

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Ogletree and Harris didn’t pick the idea of a bike out of thin air as a creative way to illustrate their point. On the contrary, they were involved in the strategic construction of this metaphor for three years. Formally known as the “Justice Gears” metaphor, it is the product of intensive research by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with the Hamilton Institute, to determine where the gaps in understanding fall between experts’ understanding of the criminal justice system and the general public’s understanding.

Here’s the Justice Gears metaphor in its entirety:

“Right now our justice system is stuck using only one gear – the prison gear. Think about how a bicycle needs to use different gears for different situations to work effectively and efficiently. The criminal justice system is trying to deal with a wide variety of situations using only the prison gear. We need to have other justice gears for people who come into the system, like mental health or juvenile justice services. We need to change the criminal justice system to make sure it has different gears for different purposes and that it can use the right gear in the right situation. If we do use more justice gears, we can improve outcomes and all get where we need to go.”

The point of this new metaphor is to put a concrete go-to picture in people’s heads when they think about the criminal justice system. Currently, most Americans’ automatic thinking around the subject involves a combination of the following:

  • We jump to public safety, thinking about it mostly in terms of front-line responders: police, firefighters, security personnel. We readily acknowledge that some of these individuals are corrupt or lazy.
  • We think crime is caused by individuals who weigh costs/benefits (rational actors), or by “rotten egg” personalities. To a lesser degree, we think of crime as a result of ecological determinants.
  • We trust that the system is “generally” functioning as it should. We don’t usually think critically about whether the system is working to advance society’s goals, or whether it serves the broad public interest.

The Framework Institute’s report gets into much greater nuance, but a central point is that the general population recognizes that there are problems in the system, but tends to attribute them to isolated individuals. Experts, on the other hand, attribute the problems to structural issues within the system.

It is important to note that African-American and Latino groups in the research study, while still demonstrating a predominant focus on the individual, came closest to the expert view on systemic issues around racial inequities within the system, a finding which comes as no surprise.

Here’s why it’s problematic to have a mental model like our current one, that doesn’t take into account systemic issues: because the model in your head naturally determines the solutions you see. If you think rational actors are choosing to commit crimes, the solution you might see is harsher punishments. If you think bad cops are responsible for police brutality, the solution you might see is stricter policies to establish surveillance around and root out those individuals. Same goes for corrupt prosecutors, crooked wardens, etc. If your mental model is focused on individual “agents”, the solutions you see will be tailored towards those agents.

If you instead see the problem in terms of structural issues, like police quotas, overwhelming caseloads, mandatory sentencing, etc., the potential solutions you see will be very different. The “Justice Gears” metaphor is one element of the reframing process that helps us reorient our dominant cognitive model towards something that positions us to consider a different set of solutions. According to the Frameworks Institute, the two other critical elements for reframing are the values and facts that most effectively reinforce the new narrative around the issue.

They tested the effectiveness of these facts:

  • Neutral – describing the impact of the criminal justice system on all adult Americans.
  • International – comparing stats on the US criminal justice system with other countries.
  • Racial Disparities – comparing effects of the system on African Americans/whites.

And these values:

  • Pragmatism emphasizing taking a “common sense” approach to public safety and criminal justice.
  • Fairness – emphasizing equal treatment.
  • Cost Efficiency – emphasizing fiscal responsibility.

The winning combination was the value of Pragmatism plus facts about Racial Disparities. Here’s an example of what messaging aligned with this value/fact combination can look like:

“Managing the criminal justice system more responsibly can address some important problems currently facing our country. For example, we know that communities with high unemployment, underachieving schools and a lack of other resources have high rates of crime. This problem particularly hurts children and young adults who may end up in the system. If we take a commonsense approach to solving our communities’ problems, we can decrease crime and enhance public safety. Specifically, we need to identify practical things we can do to address these and other issues. On the other hand, if we spend resources sending more people to prison instead of using proven alternatives, these problems will remain. A responsible approach to criminal justice will make our country safer and help all Americans. The system we have is not doing this. In 2010, seven out of every 1,000 white men in the United States were in prison. By contrast, 43 out of every 1,000 African American men in the United States were in prison. Clearly, the system is not working, and is taking a toll on our society as a whole and on communities of color in particular. We need to address the places in the system where it is not working to advance the goals of our society.”

The idea is that advocates will be able to start using this messaging as a way to start familiarizing the general public with this new framework.

As you might imagine with such a huge issue, the Frameworks Institute isn’t the only organization working on reframing. The Berkeley Media Studies Group released a report in 2009 around reframing violence among youth that touches on similar points, and also gets into some really interesting research around how to counter the distortions in news coverage of crime that conflate race and violence.

Have you seen any other research out there around reframing or other communications strategies? What do you think about the Framework Institute’s proposed framework? I would love to learn more about other perspectives or ideas. Drop me a line!

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One thought on “How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

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