How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

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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This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated.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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The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

Bystander intervention – the encouraging of bystanders to intervene before, during, or after an assault – has been embraced over the past ten years as a major step away from victim-blaming messaging, which focused on telling individuals how to modify their own behaviors around things like dress, drinking, and going out alone as a way of preventing sexual assault. But are these two strategies really that different? I’ve written about bystander intervention in a generally positive way before, but recent incidents and other activists’ writing on the subject have made me take a closer look at the problematic nature of this strategy.

Throughout 2014, bystander intervention messaging was in the spotlight in the U.S., with first the launch of the White House’s 1 is 2 Many campaign in April, followed by the Its On Us campaign launched in September, both aimed at preventing sexual assault on college campuses.

As an example, here is a recent PSA released by the Its On Us campaign:

This PSA shows a party scene in which an obviously-intoxicated woman is about to leave a party when a guy grabs her and says “oh no no, you’re not leaving already?” and starts trying to convince her to stay. Then the camera focuses on another guy sitting on a couch, watching the scene, and as he gets up to walk over to them, a voiceover says “This isn’t a PSA about a sexual assault. It’s about being the guy who stops it. ” That’s bystander intervention messaging in a nutshell: when we see something happening, it’s up to us as individuals to respond.

This messaging strategy invokes feelings of community responsibility, which at first I thought was an attempt to reframe the issue from an individual framework to a systemic framework, but it doesn’t actually do that. Bystander intervention messaging does little to illuminate systemic issues. It does not shed light on the pervasive rape culture or the institutions that fiercely protect individuals who choose to rape. As Lauren Chief Elk and Shaadi Devereaux state in their recent New Inquiry piece, “bystander intervention appears less as a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more like an evolved form of victim blaming.”

Under its warm and fuzzy cloak of community responsibility, bystander intervention messaging keeps the focus steady on the individual level, the only difference being a shift in who those individuals are. If a sexual assault happens, an individual can still be blamed – and that individual we’re all pointing to is still not the actual person committing the assault. It feels a little like a classic “look over there!” sleight-of-hand situation.

This failure to reframe the problem as a systemic issue makes it seem like the community needs to step in because holding people accountable is an impossible goal. It’s not. Particularly when it comes to college campuses, where we know that serial rapists commit 9 out of 10 rapes.

Dozens of colleges and universities are currently under investigation for mishandling investigations and refusing to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. This is an institutional problem, not a community problem. Schools need to stop protecting rapists, and improve the way they handle sexual assault cases. The overall focus needs to shift from individuals – whether victims, perpetrators, or bystanders – to the institutions allowing the problem to continue.

The problems with bystander intervention go beyond a simple failure to reframe, due to layers of privilege involved. Lauren Chief Elk shared some deeper analysis on Twitter a year ago (and many times since then), including her personal experience intervening as a bystander:

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When a woman of color challenged the behavior of white, wealthy athletes, she was the one attacked and monitored. This example illustrates how the mainstream messaging strategy of bystander intervention sells a version of heroism that sounds broadly accessible, but in reality is only socially and legally protected in certain circumstances.

There are related models that invoke community support and involvement without transferring the responsibility of assault prevention to community members. #YouOKSis started a lot of conversations about how to safely check in with someone in a street harassment situation to make sure they’re okay, but also to “make the harasser aware that somebody is watching, that somebody is paying attention, that someone is conscious”. The 2014 Feminist Public Works subway ad campaign in Philadelphia took a similar approach, as did the Bell Bajao campaign launched in India a few years ago, in which men were encouraged to interrupt domestic violence situations in a nonconfrontational way to simply communicate that the community is watching. It seems like there is some space for strategies like this to serve as a powerful form of community education and involvement, if the pressure for change remains focused on systemic issues. What do you think?

How the “Ban Bossy” Conversation is Getting Derailed

How the “Ban Bossy” Conversation is Getting Derailed

Last week, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook, of “lean in” fame), former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez teamed up to launch the “Ban Bossy” campaign. In a nutshell, this campaign introduces the general public to the idea of “bossy” as a highly-gendered word:

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.”

The campaign also links “bossy” to the other “b” word often aimed at women in leadership positions, which is an important connection for people to think about (remember this recent Pantene commercial that got a lot of attention for addressing workplace stereotypes?). There is certainly an important place for conversations about degrading gendered language, but this is not the central focus of the Ban Bossy campaign, which states that its mission is to “encourage girls to lead.” Do you see the disconnect between the slogan and the mission? Because the Ban Bossy campaign specifically focuses on a word, it imposes distinct limitations on public discussion of the idea that the Ban Bossy campaign is trying to address: the leadership gap.

The choice of a word over an idea means the overall mission is getting derailed in a million ways: from people wondering whether “bossy” is actually “a useful descriptive word” to focusing on whether “bossy” should be reclaimed rather than banned (side note: hmm, are we really going there again?) to exploring the idea that not all good leaders are bossy. Don’t get me wrong – the money and celebrity power behind this campaign are certainly succeeding in drawing attention to the leadership gap in a big way. The problem is that most of the discussion around it is bounded by the distracting parameters of the word “bossy”, rather than focusing on the forces sustaining the leadership gap. The message is getting derailed because the Ban Bossy campaign breaks Rule #1 of framing: you cannot reframe by negating the existing frame. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, suddenly that’s all you can think about. It’s just how our minds work. The word “bossy” is a powerful, loaded word and it activates a certain set of ideas in our brains. That’s why 99% of the conversation around the Ban Bossy campaign is about the specific word “bossy” … NOT about the powerful cultural forces keeping girls and women from exercising their legitimate power to lead.

This recent New Yorker article on the Ban Bossy campaign is a perfect example of a journalist falling right into this trap:

“… ‘bossy’ is a useful descriptive word that invokes a particular kind of behavior. It’s not actually a synonym, derogatory or otherwise, for leadership or authoritativeness, nor necessarily a criticism of women who embody those qualities. What it usually connotes is someone who is not in fact your boss, or a boss at all, telling you what to do. It’s the kid in your social-studies class informing you that you’re doing the assignment all wrong, or the person on the bus dispensing unsolicited advice on child rearing. Bossiness is a common human foible—though it could also be true that women with authoritative ambitions who have been denied chances for actual authority may historically have resorted to it more. In my experience, the word ‘bossiness’ is a solid little stand-in for officiousness.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s missing from this paragraph? Here’s what: it completely ignores the fact that girls are being told that they are “bossy” in situations when they are actually fulfilling a leadership role and/or exercising legitimate power to speak their minds. Why would someone choose to use a “useful descriptive word” so inappropriately? Clearly, it’s to keep girls in their place. It’s called “gaslighting” and it’s not a new concept. Convincing a girl that she is being too “aggressive” or “pushy” when she is not is an extremely powerful manipulation technique. Gaslighting is meant to make a person question their “memory, perception, or sanity” and in the case of “bossy”, this gaslighting is specifically meant to make a girl question her legitimacy as an opinion-holder and leader. Adding a “-y” to the end to “boss” trivializes the word, so a “boss-y” person is a person with no legitimate power. Now, let’s stop for a minute and think about what we would call a girl who is exercising illegitimate power over other children in inappropriate ways. Do we have a word for that? Yes, we do: bullying. If so-called “bossy” girls are not bullying, then what is the problem here? It’s actually pretty serious: they are disrupting the social order.

The word “bossy” derives much of its power from another highly-destructive, gendered word: “nice.” The two of those words together set up a framework with significant power to keep girls “in their place.” By definition, a “bossy” girl is not a “nice” girl. A “nice” girl is generally considered to be pleasant, agreeable, and cooperative. She waits for permission and does not make waves by assuming power or challenging others’ assumptions or ideas. Where is the space between “bossy” and “nice”? It’s like the virgin/whore dichotomy. Unless we want to stay stuck in this no-win space, we have to step outside of the “bossy” v. “nice” frame and choose new words that do not reinforce old patriarchal ideas. If we set ourselves up to discuss the word “bossy”, then that’s what we’ll discuss. Yes, the Ban Bossy campaign has gotten people thinking about the word in a new way, and that’s amazing. But instead of taking away the word’s power, this campaign is inadvertently shoring it up.