Researchers Say Metaphors Can Help Public Better Understand Juvenile Justice

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Juvenile justice reform advocates can spread their message further if they carefully guide their audience to an understanding of adolescent development and the justice system, researchers say.

The key is to reframe the issue of reform so that the public does not leap to conclusions about a broken system but instead thinks about how it can be improved.

Julie Sweetland

Julie Sweetland

“If advocates can make that subtle shift, they’ll build a much bigger constituency,” said Julie Sweetland, vice president for strategy and innovation at the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank that researches and develops communications strategies on public issues.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a report by FrameWorks that rounds up the organization’s research into juvenile justice communications, along with a messaging toolkit.

The report walks juvenile justice advocates through how the public thinks about juvenile justice and how those ideas interact with the messages reformers tend to rely on. The researchers then present alternatives that may work better.

Ultimately, they make the case for using metaphors that help the public understand adolescent development and the structural inequities in the juvenile justice system.

Neurological development can be compared to building a house, or cognitive skills such as executive function and self-regulation can be compared to air traffic control, they said. The justice system may be best explained as a maze.

Similarly, saying the justice system is like a bicycle that uses just one gear — the prison gear — can help the public see the need for alternative programs.

“Unless and until people can see the systems that are at work, they cannot overcome their fixation on individual-level choices and solutions. But this dominant explanation can be dislodged; people also possess an incipient understanding that childhood is a formative period, and that context matters,” the report says.

Benjamin Chambers

Benjamin Chambers

Benjamin Chambers, communications director for the National Juvenile Justice Network, a coalition of advocates, said the research holds potential for the field. Groups are getting a handle now on how to make the strategies part of their work.

“I see opportunities. We all have opportunities to do better,” he said.

The messaging does not have to be a heavy lift; even small organizations can find ways to incorporate it, he said. The big work is mental — getting comfortable with the metaphors and making them a natural part of a group’s communications.

Advocates also are working through how to make the strategies work in different settings. A broad public outreach campaign may require different levers than a one-on-one conversation with a lawmaker, where a relationship is paramount, Chambers said.

Aprill O. Turner

Aprill O. Turner

Aprill O. Turner, communications and media relations director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, said the group is integrating the message into some of its new materials — with the hope of reaching beyond the usual players.

"The Campaign for Youth Justice is very committed to communicating in the most effective way possible, not just to those in the field, but we are also interested in reaching new audiences and building awareness around youth in the adult criminal justice system. This new messaging research allows us to do that,” Turner wrote in an email.

Developing the research

FrameWorks recommendations build on years of research that brings together anthropologists, linguists and other analysts. They study how the field communicates, explore how the public thinks about those messages and test new models.

Ultimately, FrameWorks tries to tease out the common themes that resonate across groups — and help advocates knock them down or build them up.

“If you can predict the similarities, you can prepare,” Sweetland said.

The researchers use the metaphor of a swamp to describe how the public thinks about juvenile justice now, explaining there is danger but also potential in the ideas people already hold.

For example, people tend to think about people as “tots or teens” — either too young to know right from wrong or fully responsible young adults — which leaves little room for a discussion of how a young person develops.

Or people blame parents for providing insufficient moral instruction — but that offers some promise by suggesting people see childhood as a formative period and may be open to understanding new science around child and adolescent development.

The report then walks through the values advocates can use to frame the conversation about juvenile reform given how the public thinks now. The researchers found the public is more responsive to messages of pragmatism than messages of fairness or cost efficiency.

The message should be that a practical, common-sense approach can work to better communities, the researchers said. That’s where the metaphors come in, to help explain how the system could work better in practical ways.

Sweetland said using the research makes sense. Many in the field have accepted the need to build programs based on evidence; the same should be true of communications.

“We should be way past the point where we’re using our guts to make communications decisions,” she said.

FrameWorks expects to release their latest research on school discipline messaging by the end of this year.

The juvenile justice report was co-authored by Johanna Wald, the director of strategic planning & development at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School.

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