Here's what's wowing me lately. 

How do you start a conversation about prisons?

How do you start a conversation about prisons? There's a way to create openings...

How do you start a conversation about prisons? There's a way to create openings...

A decade ago I spent hours arguing with folks about whether we should begin public conversations about California's Three Strikes Law by talking about a racist miscarriage of justice or the savings to taxpayers of a sound approach to sentencing and prisons.  These days there's more and more really good research that can guide advocates on criminal justice issues with respect to framing, messaging and sequencing. Colleagues at A New Way of Life (where I am a board member), a nonprofit in LA that empowers and organizes formerly incarcerated people sent me some analysis on criminal justice produced by the Frameworks Institute. This Huffington Post piece by UCLA Dean and Frameworks researcher Frank Gilliam provides a succinct and thoughtful roadmap for criminal justice advocates. 

Here are the key paragraphs: 

 The introduction of values plays an important role in influencing public opinion about criminal justice. In particular, when exposed the to the value of pragmatism (e.g., it just doesn't make good sense to keep building prisons and incarcerating people for non-violent offenses), people are much more likely to support a reform agenda. More to the point, the FrameWorks experimental studies show that you can productively inject facts about racial disparities into the conversation, but only when those facts are preceded by the orienting value of pragmatism. The data suggest that sequencing information in this way significantly increased a belief that incarceration is caused by systemic factors; that remediation should focus on systemic factors; and that racial disparities should be addressed. This is a much better way, we believe, to advocate for criminal justice reform.

Many advocates have contacted us wondering if this means that you can't talk about race in the context of crime. The important question isn't whether or not you can talk about race and crime, but rather how and in what order you talk about it. We have found that starting a conversation with the American public by essentially claiming the system is racist does, in fact, dampen support for progressive reforms. But, and this is an important finding, our research also shows that starting the conversation with the values that many Americans adhere to, and then pointing out racial disparities, is effective in garnering support for progressive reforms.