Transforming the System
1. Reinforce and expand public support for real reform.
- Most Americans believe that “people who have committed serious crimes can turn their lives around and move away from a life of crime with the right kind of help.” Build on this belief by publicizing both studies and specific examples of successful reentry and reintegration. Be careful when telling stories of individuals who have come out of prison and given back not to give the impression that this is unique or even unusual. Emphasize that many thousands of formerly incarcerated people who have been offered sound educational and employment opportunities have been successful. Showcase successful, government-funded reentry roundtables and programs, especially those that have been shown to reduce recidivism.
- Emphasize prevention and define it holistically. Americans support the idea of prevention, but may have a narrow view of what it means. It’s not just evening basketball for “inner city youth.” Healthy communities are safe communities, and healthy communities are communities that have good schools, good jobs, good housing, good health care, etc. That is what effective crime prevention entails. Keep hammering on the link between crime, hopelessness, and lack of opportunity.
- A majority of Americans believe that “it is important for the country to reduce its prison population” and a plurality of Americans say the main reason is “because sentences are disproportionately severe.” This message should be front and center and repeated as often as possible until it becomes a widely accepted fact. Once the public understands that reducing the length of sentences is critical to ending mass incarceration, support for specific sentencing reforms will be easier to build and sustain.
- The corollary to the above point is to show through existing credible studies that long sentences do not improve public safety. Studies that have examined the public safety effects of imposing longer periods of imprisonment have consistently shown that harsher sentences have little deterrent effect. The same public safety outcomes can be realized with shorter sentences.
2. Proactively tackle problem areas.
- Keep reminding audiences that the criminal justice system is discriminatory at every stage, from policing through sentencing and the death penalty. Emphasize the roles of unconscious or implicit bias and structural racism in producing very disparate outcomes for white people and people of color.
- Change the language. Take care not to use terms like “offender,” “ex-offender,” “ex-convict,” “inmate,” and “ex-felon.” Refrain from describing crimes as “nonviolent” whenever possible. The movement prefers phrases like “incarcerated person,” “formerly incarcerated person,” and “returning citizen.” Use the term “discrimination” rather than “disparities.”
- Emphasize that mass incarceration is a serious American problem that affects the country as a whole. Invoke the values of fairness, equal treatment, second chance, and community.
- Conduct more public opinion research on:
- How to talk about people convicted of serious offenses. The ACLU research cited in this report offers some tantalizing hints at what might work, but more research would be helpful.
- How to disentangle criminal justice and immigration reform. The government’s emphasis on “criminal aliens” and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people under that label has contributed to the linkage of crime and immigrants in the public discourse. This, in turn, has led to an increase in support for aggressive immigration enforcement. More research would help in developing a communications strategy to overcome this problem.