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Reconciling Principle With Pragmatism

November 22, 2018

Balancing Priorities and Context in our Criminal Justice System

Tune in to any news show and odds are you’ll hear about yet another intractable political issue. There may be a couple of angry quotes flashing across the screen, or perhaps, a conversation between politicians yelling for their side. The newscaster looks on, resigned to refereeing a shouting match and ends the segment so everybody can catch their breath.

As my colleague, Antonio Diep, noted in his blog post, Practical Agreement in Healthcare, experts are looking for ways to explain how our national political discourse on important policy issues went off the rails so dramatically. But at Public Agenda we had another question, what if there exists hidden common ground amongst the American public? Through our Hidden Common Ground Initiative, we set out to see what this may look like in relation to criminal justice policy.

Criminal justice is a topic of discussion that evokes passion. For many Americans, topics like criminal justice are intimately intertwined with their broader moral and ethical viewpoints. Likewise, political conversations relating to criminal justice policy can often be characterized more as debates than discussions, highlighting the difficulty of reforming policy that every American has a stake in.

Americans have diverse viewpoints on why people commit crimes, how fair the criminal justice system is and the role of prison in addressing crime. However, recent polling shows shifting opinions in how Americans view their criminal justice system and how they view individual kinds of crime, like drug offenses.

Within this context, our research shows Americans are reconsidering the balance of priorities in our criminal justice system; considering rehabilitation alongside punishment and the role of extenuating circumstances, like mental health and unemployment, in the commission of crimes. Americans, according to our research, are reconciling principle with pragmatism.

Interesting nuances relating to steadfast cultural narratives are also being better understood in our research. For example, narratives of personal responsibility offer simple explanations for why criminals commit crimes, but our research shows that such narratives are also contributing to how Americans view solutions to incarceration. For example, in one focus group, participants discussed the idea that reframing drug dealing as employment might help frame solutions like vocational training.

Our research shows that policy ideas like alternative sentencing and mandatory minimums are being considered and reconsidered in new contexts, like drug addiction and sentencing proportionality. Our conversations revealed nuanced reflections amongst Americans about the criminal justice system, who wrestled with questions like: Is prison the best way to address drug crimes relating to addiction? Do mandatory minimums mitigate the impact of judicial bias or do they exacerbate incarceration inequities?

Our research sheds new light on where Americans are finding common ground and how those conversations are taking place. When it comes to our criminal justice system, Americans are reconciling new cultural norms, the consequences of past policy decisions, and their own principles in new, accommodating and promising ways.


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Ravi Reddi

Former Research Associate, Public Agenda