The Fear Scale: Fear and Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System

It seems like an obvious truth, but bears repeating: Fear skews people’s view of the world.

We’ve seen it time and again in the actions of the Trump administration, in its attacks on civil liberties and human rights, on people of color, on asylum seekers striving for a better life for themselves and their families.

Even in California, a state that has emerged as fertile ground for progressive criminal justice reform, fear keeps a strong foothold. Indeed, according to our most recent research, despite many policy wins within that state, California residents hold continued resistance to policies that can shift the disproportional targeting of communities of color by law enforcement and other governmental agencies.

In an effort to examine this relationship more closely, The Opportunity Agenda and the ACLU of California engaged in a collaborative research project last year to examine Californians’ attitudes and beliefs about the criminal justice system.

We used a five-point scale to gauge respondents’ level of fear related to their physical safety and the impact, if any, on their attitudes toward criminal justice. As of July 2018, 19 percent of Californians surveyed expressed low levels of fear related to their safety, while 68 percent expressed moderate levels. Thirteen percent expressed high levels of fear related to their physical safety.

The scores on our “fear scale” correlate strongly with Californians’ overall perception of the criminal justice system, and proved to be a stronger predictor of attitudes than party affiliation and ideological lean. Fear related to physical safety also correlated strongly with people’s experience and knowledge of the criminal justice system. The more knowledgeable, the less fearful.

For example, individuals who scored low on the fear scale were more likely to know someone who had been arrested or incarcerated, as opposed to those who scored higher on the scale. Meanwhile, individuals who scored high on the fear scale were also significantly more likely to rate their overall knowledge of the criminal justice system as high.

So, as advocates, how can we adopt our messaging strategies to confront and overcome these fears? Here are four ways:

  • Talk Big Picture: Our findings indicate that voters are eager to hear potential solutions to the problems currently plaguing the criminal justice system. Start messages with a broader vision of what the criminal justice system should do and the values it should uphold, then move on to details.
  • Show Unfairness: More audiences believe that the system treats people unequally than believe it treats people unfairly. It is important for advocates and policymakers to provide specific examples of how the system is unfair and how we can fix it.
  • Pivot to Solutions: Leverage audiences’ interest in rehabilitation over punishment by naming specific solutions and alternatives. Key audiences react favorably to the mention of drug treatment programs and mental health support, for example.
  • Don’t Shy Away from Race: When addressing inequality, talk about who is most affected, and specifically mention African American and Latino men. This information inspires the base toward action and does not decrease support from persuadable audiences.
  • Future Research Needs: Explore persuadables’ disconnect between believing that inequality exists and the struggle to understand specific examples.

For more information on how to frame issues of criminal justice, check out our Transforming The System resource, which provides practical policy solutions and communication tools for building a shared narrative around criminal justice reform.

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