Why the CJS needs a rhetoric revolution

25 Oct 2016

By Penelope Gibbs, Director, Transform Justice 

“Committing a crime is always a choice. That’s why the primary, proper response to crime is not explanations or excuses, it is punishment - proportionate, meaningful punishment.”

David Cameron’s words in 2012 reflect the views not just of many politicians, but of the public too.  Forty-eight percent of people in the UK support the death penalty. Last year a poll in The Times showed that 70% of people think sentences are too soft. However, at the same time most also thought prison was ineffective in rehabilitating offenders.  This is why criminal justice advocates and practitioners have such a hard time persuading policy makers that less punishment and more rehabilitation are the answers.

Three years ago a group of advocates, including Transform Justice, decided to try to change the public debate on crime and punishment.  We commissioned research from the FrameWorks Institute – an International NGO expert in a new way of working out how to communicate messages. The research involved surveys and in-depth interviews with over 6,000 people, and focused on why people have particular views, rather than just what those views are. In comparing the beliefs of criminal justice leaders with the general public, the findings show that we need to revolutionise the way we talk about crime and those who commit it.

Facts on their own do not influence people.  Beliefs shape how people think.  This was shown powerfully by the Brexit campaign.  Facts were used (and abused) by both sides but voters only processed those facts which fitted their core beliefs.  The ‘fact’ that Britain sends £350 million to the EU every week was used by the ‘Leave’ campaign to imply that the EU sucked money out of the British economy. Many media outlets pointed out that the claim was untrue, but still didn’t change people’s minds. In fact, research by ICM Unlimited showed that half of the Leave supporters who had heard that the '£350 million' was false, nevertheless rated it as “strongly or mostly believable”. Facts are only worth using as part of a narrative which people believe.

Facts on their own do not influence people.  Beliefs shape how people think. 

Our research found that most people feel that those who commit crime are making an individual, rational choice – weighing up the benefits of doing the crime against the chance of being caught and punished.  The reality of crime is very different.  Most crime is spontaneous and very little is logically thought through.  People who commit crime are individuals but they are influenced by their environment, by their upbringing and education, and by health.  Unfortunately the belief that people are making a rational, personal choice to commit crime is difficult to shift, and leads to other “unhelpful” beliefs.  If crime is a “cost-benefit decision”, then punishment needs to be harsher to deter people from crime.  And for most people the only possible punishment is prison.  Prisons are perceived as “holiday camps”, which need to be tougher in order to provide a greater deterrent.

Knowing what people believe is an important starting point.  It is a reality check and gives us an idea of what to avoid and what to dwell on.  Other advice:

  • Don’t engage in the prison as punishment debate. If you say “prisons are not holiday camps and making them harsher will not work”, you are contradicting a deep-seated belief.
  • Avoid suggesting that crime (and desistance) is a choice. This means avoiding the words choice, agency, responsibility, and being wary of using individual. All these words trigger the strong belief in crime as a choice.
  • Do emphasise the importance of rehabilitation and the contribution of education to it. People already believe in rehabilitation and we need to reinforce that belief.
  • Avoid describing prisons as 'in crisis'. Since people think prisons should be harsher anyway, they can’t engage with crisis in prisons.  If you do describe problems in prisons, depict solutions and give people confidence that progress is achievable.

Changing how we communicate is hard work but, unless we persist, we are unlikely to change the debate so that rehabilitation really succeeds and prison numbers are reduced. 

To read more tips on what language, values and metaphors to use in order to transform people’s attitude towards justice, refer to the full report. You can also email penelope@transformjustice.org.uk  with any questions.