Criminal Justice (U.S.A.)

public safety

How do we effectively communicate to the public about the need to reform the criminal justice system? The goal of the project is to develop more effective ways to communicate about the challenges facing America’s criminal justice system and the reforms necessary to fix the system. The project aims to provide criminal justice experts and advocates with tools and strategic recommendations they can use to reframe the issue of public safety for broad public understanding and support.

This project is conducted in partnership with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University’s Law School and Behind the Cycle, with support from the Ford Foundation. The Rosenberg Foundation supported the interpretation of the research and its translation into a multi-media MessageMemo as well as a pilot training of leaders in the field.

This page will be updated with further communication tools as our engagement on this important issue progresses in the future.

Coming Soon...

Stay tuned for a Strategic Communications Playbook on reframing school discipline – based on new research sponsored by the Racial Equality Fund of the Open Society Foundations. Join our mailing list to be among the first to know when it’s released in Fall 2016.

Research & Recommendations

New! Talking Juvenile Justice Reform: A FrameWorks MessageMemo (2016) (PDF)
Two bodies of FrameWorks research on issues relating to youth development and criminal justice are synthesized in this analysis of public thinking about juvenile justice, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This MessageMemo explains reframing strategies that have been tested to advance juvenile justice policies, allowing advocates for adolescents and criminal justice reformers to pivot from these issues to juvenile justice reforms.

Talking Criminal Justice and Public Safety: A FrameWorks MessageMemo (2014) (PDF)
This Multimedia MessageMemo summarizes the findings from a comprehensive multi-method investigation of how Americans view the criminal justice system and recommends specific reframing tools that demonstrated strong effects in redirecting thinking and elevating support for meaningful reforms. It includes videos and infographics to help advocates visualize the research findings and appreciate the impact of the reframing tools.

Adjusting Our Focus: Current Communication Practices and Patterns in the Criminal Justice Sector (2014)
This Field Frame Analysis, prepared by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, examines 216 documents from the websites of 18 influential criminal justice organizations. Among the findings are that competing issue priorities splinter the narrative among 16 different issues while causal explanations are largely absent. When discussed, racial bias in the system most often appears as one in a long list of other serious problems. The dominance of a the Economic Efficiency Value Frame, in light of other FrameWorks research, suggests the need for strategic revision of field messaging.

Maze and Gears: Using Explanatory Metaphors to Increase Public Understanding of the Criminal Justice System and its Reform (2013)
This report presents the results of metaphor research using qualitative and quantitative methods with approximately 1,300 members of the general public. This research yielded two Explanatory Metaphors — The Justice Maze and Justice Gears — that help advance public understanding of structural problems in the criminal justice system and the need for reform to address these problems.

Framing and facts: Necessary Synergies in Communicating about Public Safety and Criminal Justice (2013)
This report presents the results of an experimental survey that assesses the effect of facts and values on people's attitudes towards criminal justice reform. Among four values tested, Pragmatism was most effective in elevating support for reform. Presenting unframed facts about the criminal justice system — that is, facts presented without an accompanying value — produced minimal effects. However, when facts about racial disparities in the criminal justice system were combined with the value of Pragmatism, support increased for a wide range of reform measures.

Public Safety: Framing a Reform Agenda (2011)
This report details the first stage of the FrameWorks Institute engagement on this issue. The initial section of the report is an analysis of the story of the field as told through communications materials, policy briefings, legislative testimony and websites from criminal justice reform advocates. The second section is based on a recalibration of this story that resulted from an October 2010 convening, during which meeting attendees were given a chance to review the story their materials are telling and react to a critique of this story by FrameWorks staff. The final section expresses several testable propositions that result from the preceding analysis.

Caning, Context and Class – Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Public Safety (2011)
This report lays the groundwork for this larger reframing effort by comparing expert discourse on the topic with the ways that average Americans think and talk about public safety. Data from interviews with both experts and average Americans are compared to locate and examine gaps in understanding surrounding this issue.

Strengthen Communities, Educate Children and Prevent Crime: A Communications Analysis of Peer Discourse Sessions on Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform (2011)
This report details research findings from a series of six peer discourse sessions conducted by the FrameWorks Institute with groups of civically engaged Americans across the country. These sessions provide an opportunity to see how cultural models function in settings that approximate the social contexts in which discussions about public safety and the criminal justice system naturally occur.


New!Shifting Gears on Juvenile Justice: A FrameWorks Communications Toolkit
explains how to implement reframing recommendations, using examples from the field.

The National Academy of Sciences explains incarceration trends in a new video that is highly consonant with FrameWorks’ reframing recommendations.


This "Pictures in Their Heads" video explains the cultural models that Americans employ when thinking and talking about Public Safety, and explores the gaps between those models and the ways that experts understand those same issues.


Explaining UK Prison Reform
One Small Thing and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies work to bring greater awareness to issues surrounding women in prison. This animated explainer from Lady Edwina Grosvenor uses insights from a Strategic Frame Analysis® to make a powerful, and accessible, case for prison reform. It’s being shared widely in the UK, under the hashtag #FixTheMaze.

FrameWorks Institute

  Updated: 09/15/16