Framing Criminal Justice


spring, 42-year-old convicted murderer Douglas Roberts died by lethal
injection, the fifth prisoner to be put to death in Texas in as
many months. High on drugs, Roberts, a 30-year drug user, stabbed
a man and then turned himself in, never denying responsibility for
his actions. He even asked for jurors who supported the death penalty,
reporting that as a Christian, he did not fear death and hoped soon
to return to his Maker. Aside from his lawyers, few people came
to his defense. In an era where capital punishment is becoming less
popular, how can pubic opinion continue, at least tacitly, to support
state executions? 

opinion is shaped by a combination of unconsciously-held shared
assumptions and beliefs and bold attempts to shape the way people
understand an issue. Sociologists call these conscious attempts
“framing,” and we have been hearing a lot lately from
cognitive linguist George Lakoff and a gaggle of political commentators
about the importance of framing messages for successful political
movements. As it turns out, thinking about frames can be useful
in helping to describe the pervasiveness of the U.S.’s tough
on crime attitude; it just doesn’t tell the whole story. 

and political activists have been “framing” issues for
centuries, and media scholars and sociologists have been using the
term for decades to analyze publicity strategies. Erving Goffman
is credited with explaining the process in a 1974 book. William
Gamson and Charlotte Ryan have been teaching framing strategies
to progressive activists for many years in Boston. In addition,
there are excellent resources—including tutorials—available
at the Strategic Press Information Network (SPIN). 

scientist Cynthia Enloe has suggested that you can tell a lot about
a person’s beliefs concerning the state use of force by how
they answer the question, “Is the world fundamentally a dangerous
place?” Those who fear for their safety, either at home or
in the world arena, are more easily influenced by forces that promise
protection and justify higher levels of social control, such as
mandatory minimum sentencing or the USA PATRIOT Act. This assumption
leads to the belief that locking up criminals and increasing police
presence will improve public safety. It is what drives the growth
of the prison industry as well as the popularity of gated communities
and lures politicians on both sides of the aisle to support “tough
on crime” policies. But something else is at work, too. 

basic question is, “Are people basically good or evil?”
If you hold the belief that we all must use self-discipline to avoid
getting into trouble, then it follows that people convicted of criminal
activity deserve what they get. “If you do the crime, you do
the time” resonates for many, especially those who are struggling
to make ends meet. They can easily resent anyone who beats the system
and gets away with it. 

way of thinking came to the U.S. through early settlers whose Protestant
religious philosophy was grounded in the belief that humans are
wicked and deserve punishment for their sinful behavior. Many of
us unconsciously hold to the myth that our country, formed as it
was on the values of individualism and personal responsibility,
rightfully holds people accountable for their actions. Beginning
in elementary school we are fed a message that personal responsibility
is a necessary condition of an orderly society whether governed
by religious or secular principles. Since this feels like common
sense to most of us, it is no surprise that it is included in much
of liberal thought. 

Americans want to believe that aside from certain aberrations, like
wrongful convictions, the criminal justice system is fair and neutral.
This myth is attractive because it allows many white, middle class,
and law-abiding people to trust they will not be falsely accused
of a crime and that the police will keep their homes and families
safe. It also contributes to what many have called the “us-them”
dichotomy, or the sense that the source of society’s problems
is external to our own reality, and not our personal responsibility.
Angela Davis, in her criticism of the prison industrial complex,
has reminded us that our system renders prisoners invisible to many,
especially those in power. They become no longer our responsibility. 

three beliefs, that it’s a jungle out there, that people will
naturally try to “get over,” and that the current system
of social control is working, or at least is worth the price, contribute
to a worldview that justifies killing someone like Douglas Roberts. 

this makes you feel a little uncomfortable, remember that not everyone
thinks this way. Alternative beliefs like the basic goodness of
people and the danger of excessive government control are fundamental
to a liberal way of looking at the world, as is the recognition
that social conditions like poverty or the pervasive presence of
racism have profound effects on people’s opportunities. But
there is no denying that these appear to make less of an impression
on current public opinion about crime. How has this happened? 

Beckett and Ted Sasson, analysts of crime, media, and public opinion,
argue that how a criminal justice issue is framed, rather than the
social science research that examines it, determines the public’s
response. In other words, just telling the truth is not enough to
change a person’s mind. Someone is drawing some very effective
framing and it isn’t the left. 

these frames, which skillfully depend on the three beliefs outlined
above. They influence attitudes that progressives have found hard
to shake.  

  • Committing a
    crime is an individual choice. Criminals make the wrong choices
    and deserve to be punished. 

  • People who commit
    crimes have no respect for the law. They must be shown they cannot
    disregard our system of law and order. 

  • More police,
    more arrests, and more convictions make us safer. 

  • Punishment must
    be harsh in order to deter further crime. Coming down hard on
    juvenile delinquents prevents them from doing more harm later. 

  • “Tough
    on crime” policies exist because the public wants them. 

such criminal justice frames, or lenses that display how the world
works, has been a central feature of the success of the “tough
on crime” movement. Consider the average person who locks her
door at night to protect her family. If she believes that robbers
steal for food, she may be willing to support social programs that
address people’s hunger to help her feel safe, all the while
scanning the local paper’s police log for trends. But if she
has been victimized by a crime herself, she may be more willing
to support a get-tough approach, secure in the thought that the
robber had it coming to him. At this point in our history, the Ashcrofts
and Gonzaleses surely have the upper hand. 

course, these frames do not make sense to communities hardest hit
by poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system. But if you
live in public housing, you are nuts not to lock your door and you
still need the cops sometimes even if they have packed your son
off to jail. For 25 years conservative policymakers have been skillfully
using such contradictions and confusions to their advantage in crafting
some of their frames and it’s practically the only thing on
the menu today. 

is clearly not just coming up with an appealing image or slogan.
It’s figuring out how to explain reality in ways that are true
to a vision and make sense to lots of people. Successful movements
also need resources such as money and institutions including media
and think tanks; we need skillful and principled leaders; we need
to find ways to exploit opportunities in the political system; we
need a welcoming environment in our movement culture; and we need
militant demonstrations, constructive conferences; and music, dance,
theater, and fabulous parties. 

we rebuild all of that—and we will—we will find a way
to reframe public debates around criminal justice and other issues
that will refocus our society on the need to protect human rights
rather than punish humans inhumanely.

Political Research
Associates has just published

Defending Justice: An Activist
Resource Kit