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As “Tough on Crime” Messaging Loses Appeal, Will Progressives Seize the Opening?

It’s time to replace the police, prosecutions and prisons with repair and restoration.

Activists protest the New York Police Department's "Broken Windows" policy outside the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association offices on January 16, 2015, in New York City.

“We should focus on solutions that are working instead of what helps us look tough…”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) recently tweeted these lines about a violence prevention program originating in her community. Her focus on “what works,” along with the surprising victory of Brandon Johnson in April’s mayoral race in Chicago, offer political candidates and leaders some important insights — backed up by communications research — about how they can successfully advance a progressive narrative about crime, safety and community.

Johnson’s win was particularly noteworthy and encouraging because his race was dominated by discussions of crime. Even in the face of wholly expected “soft on crime” attacks from his far more traditional “law and order” opponent, he stuck to his core messaging stressing investments, such as youth employment and violence prevention initiatives.

Ocasio-Cortez and Johnson, either consciously or instinctively, were putting into practice messaging recommendations made by several respected national communications organizations, including two with which we worked at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute — Opportunity Agenda and FrameWorks Institute — as well as ASO Communications. All conducted extensive research on how to counter the assumption, accepted by too many on the left as well as right, that the only solution the public will accept to rising crime — real or perceived — is to ramp up the three p’s: police, prosecutions and prisons.

While the findings of all three organizations warrant full and careful readings, several insights stand out as particularly germane to the current political climate. ASO Communications, headed up by Anat Shenker-Osorio, maintains that the path to electoral victory is to “engage the base, persuade the middle.” How to do that? ASO’s messaging memo tells us that we must shift from “leading with the problem” to leading with a positive vision for what safe communities look like, anchored in values shared across races, backgrounds and gender.” Opportunity Agenda drew a similar conclusion: “Move beyond denouncing. Highlight positive solutions and alternatives that ensure equal justice and protect public safety.” As Opportunity Agenda founder Alan Jenkins used to remark, “Dr. King didn’t say ‘I have a complaint.’”

That is all well and good, but what about those inclined to dismiss such ideas as idealistic mumbo jumbo that “coddles criminals”? That is where FrameWorks’s findings about pragmatism, released in a message memo in partnership with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, become so important. When they tested prevention, fairness, cost efficiency and pragmatism in surveys sent to 8,000 respondents about the need for a less punitive legal system, it was “pragmatism” or “common sense” that “outperformed” the other values and elevated “systems-level thinking and policy support” among the public.

The beauty of focusing on pragmatism is that it inoculates individuals from accusations of being “soft on crime.” For once, instead of crouching in a defensive stance and shouting “more funding for police” whenever “crime” is raised as an issue, progressives can go on the offensive. Ocasio-Cortez showed us how when she challenged her colleagues: “Show me what you have done that is clinically proven to reduce violence in your community…. Because I’ll show you mine.” While calls for “broken windows” policing demand crackdowns on minor offenses, pragmatism preaches investing in the community to fix the windows in the first place.

Secondly and more ambitiously, a combined focus on shared values, community health and pragmatism opens the door for some brave political figures to articulate a very different approach to justice, one that the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, termed “community justice.” It is what one Chicago voter meant when he stated: “We want to be invested in…. We don’t want to just be punished.”

Under this definition, justice is not synonymous with retribution, revenge or maximum prison sentences but with “being made whole.” Safety and violence prevention then become part of a larger focus on individual and community well-being and healing. Such an approach can incorporate discussions of social determinants of health, of what neuroscience tells us about the conditions needed for healthy brain development, of investments in education, health care, housing and job creation, and of participatory budgeting. It is a vision espoused by grassroots advocates across the country.

A resourceful staffer on any campaign can dig up plenty of evidence and examples — from academics, policy shops and community-based advocacy groups — to support a “what works” rather than a “get tough” approach. For example, Rutgers University criminologist Todd Clear and colleagues have found that that mass incarceration actually destabilizes communities and makes them less safe. Scholar Lance Lochner identified graduating more people from high school as more effective in preventing violent crimes than adding more police officers.

Sometimes investments, such as adding better lighting in certain neighborhoods, or repairing abandoned buildings, installing windows and removing trash can reduce neighborhood gun violence by as much as 39 percent. And, of course, as Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, community-led and created programs can be far more effective — and cheaper — in curbing violence than over-reliance upon the law enforcement apparatus.

This is not to suggest that making the case for true community justice will be easy, nor is certain to succeed. FrameWorks research — and the comments section of daily news stories — tell us that Americans of all political persuasions tend to view crime in terms of “rational bad actors” and consider harsh punishment to be a strong deterrent. We also know that Americans are particularly prone to adopt this strand of thinking. Those are strong headwinds that will always make the progressive case for criminal legal reform a tough sell among certain segments of the population.

But, as Shenker-Osorio reminds us, to win elections candidates have to engage the base and persuade the middle. They don’t have to win over everyone. We already know from Fordham law professor John Pfaff’s research that communities of color most directly affected by violence and crime are the ones most eager to support a nuanced and multifaceted approach to safety that focuses on making key quality of life investments. As he wrote: “The desire to think differently is coming from those most affected.” That certainly proved to be true in Chicago, where Johnson won close to 80 percent in some predominantly Black communities.

As rural white communities increasingly face harsh carceral responses to drug and opioid use — often targeted at their family members and friends — there is reason to believe that many living there may welcome a different approach as well. An emphasis on “what works” may be enough to persuade those not set on any ideology to join in focusing on well-being, both their own and others.

A hopeful reading of recent elections is that the era of “tough on crime” and “law and order” politics may be receding, or at least that these messages may no longer be surefire routes to electoral victory. Candidates who understand that the carceral state has devastated communities and families, and that the most effective response to every social ill is not more punishment, have an opening to talk about these issues in a new way. It’s time to replace the police, prosecutions and prisons with repair and restoration.

If progressive candidates can summon the courage and conjure up faith in the common sense of a large enough swath of voters, they will not be doing so in the dark — they will have research and some success stories to light the way.