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To Mobilize Criminal Justice Reform, Appeal to the Public's Self-Interest

Highlighting racial disparities may be less effective, a new study finds.

Prison populations in the United States have been falling for nearly a decade, but the country still incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other developed nation. Decades of harsh public opinion and prison-happy politicians ratcheted up sentences beginning in the 1970s, leading to unsustainable growth in prison and jail populations. But falling crime rates, tight budgets, and changes to state and federal sentencing laws reversed the trend in 2009, and prison populations have fallen every year since—though at a much slower rate than they initially began to climb.

Given the critical role that the public played in encouraging "tough-on-crime" politicians and rhetoric, understanding how to influence public opinion on reform could help to increase the speed and extent of changes to the carceral system. That's why the authors of a new study in Crime & Delinquency sought to identify which kinds of reform arguments play well with the public. It turns out that appealing to people's self-interest—rather than appealing to their sense of fairness—was more effective for increasing support for reform.

In the new study, Aaron Gottlieb, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois–Chicago, surveyed 3,100 Americans about sentencing reform. He presented each participant with one of six different reform messages, each designed to appeal alternately to their senses of self-interest, fairness, or sympathy. The two messages designed to incite feelings of self-interest highlighted the high cost of incarceration and the high recidivism rate of ex-prisoners, for example. Three fairness messages highlighted racial disparities, the fact that sentences have grown so harsh that they no longer fit the crime, and the harm done to innocent children when their parents are incarcerated. Finally, the message appealing to participants' sympathy argued that it is often adverse childhood experiences or existing mental illness, rather than bad character, that leads to criminal behavior.

Messages about the cost of incarceration, which tops out at nearly $70,000 a year per inmate in New York and California, were the most effective at increasing support for reforms such as eliminating incarceration for non-violent drug or property offenses. Messages about high recidivism rates were second most effective at increasing support for reduced sentences.

"The most surprising thing for me was that I didn't find effects from messages emphasizing the harm done to children," Gottlieb says. Personally, he says, he was first inspired to research criminal justice reform when, while volunteering at a Boys & Girls Club in college, he saw incarceration's adverse effects on kids with imprisoned parents firsthand. "I assumed that would be a pretty persuasive message."

While messages about the unfairness of the incarceration system for minorities and children didn't increase support for reform compared to controls, messages about the unfairness of harsh sentences for low-level drug and property crimes did.

"Focusing on the unfairness of the punishment instead of the unfairness of who was punished seems to be more effective."

"Fairness can matter if it's framed in a specific way," Gottlieb says. "Focusing on the unfairness of the punishment instead of the unfairness of who was punished seems to be more effective."

That's not to say that reform activists and politicians should abandon any of the message frames the study deemed less effective. "I'm hesitant to say that the racial disparities frame has been useless," Gottlieb says. "I think it's clear that a lot of people who have the strongest reform sentiments are people who are motivated by that. Clearly for those people that was an important message."

Many other variables aside from framing influenced the participants' views on reform: Participants who identified as religious, Republican or Independent, those with incomes over $50,000 per year, and respondents who were married were all less likely to support criminal justice reform. In other words, messaging matters, but it can only go so far to shape Americans' feelings about their prison system.

Next, Gottlieb says he plans to look into public opinion on sentence reform for violent offenders. Though lengthy sentences for non-violent offenses are partially to blame for the U.S.'s record-breaking incarceration rates, even eliminating incarceration for those offenders would leave the U.S. with a very high incarceration rate.

"To get us to the point that we're incarcerating people at a similar rate to other advanced democracies, we would need to shorten sentences for violent offenders as well," Gottlieb says.