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Framing Criminal Justice
T his 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?
Public 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.
Social 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).
Political 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.
Another 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.
This 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.
Many 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.
If 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?
Katherine 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.
Consider 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.
Crafting 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.
Of 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.
Reframing 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.
As 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 (www.publiceye.org).
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
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LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
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MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.