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Say: “True Public Safety Means Prevention!”  

by Susan C. Strong

New reports suggest that some desperate Republicans are trying out “public safety” and “crime” as their 2013-4 state-level election frame.(1) Colorado and California are already seeing conservative moves to retake their state legislatures and governorships by accusing Democrats of being “soft on crime,” and putting “public safety” at risk.  However, nationally crime rates have actually been falling since 1994 and remain low. (2) In addition, even conservative states like Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina and Texas have lately been showing approval for measures that actually reduce repeat crime while cutting the costs of criminal justice.(3) Many communities are also finding that a variety of simple preventive measures work best to reduce new crime.(4) So given these facts, and especially if we don’t live in California or Colorado, why should we worry much about some Republican’s irresponsible new political frame?

First of all, as my readers are probably all well aware, the struggle to hold on to and increase Republican control of the House of Representatives is still happening at the state level. State legislatures dominated by extreme conservatives are redistricting their states into safe jigsaw puzzles to protect their most radical Tea Party colleagues. In addition, with the Supreme Court’s gutting the most important piece of the Voting Rights Act, many of these same state legislatures are poised to pass increasingly restrictive voter access laws with new impunity. So “crime” and “public safety” are frames probably coming to your state sooner or later too.  

With their new “public safety/crime” frames, some Republicans are clearly trying to ride to victory by coopting a recent mainstream frame that has gone viral in a very big way.  I’m speaking of the “gun safety” framing first launched in August 2012 on Twitter after the Sikh Temple Massacre in (Wisconsin): “Say: we need better gun safety laws, not gun control.”(5)  “Gun safety” and “preventing gun violence” are now being used by everyone from MoveOn head Anna Galland, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly of Americans for Responsible Solutions, to Vice President Biden and beyond. (The only people still using “gun control” are the NRA, because they know that Americans fear control. The media falls into their trap all too often.) Ninety per cent of the public favors better background check law, along with 85% of gun owners, and 74% of NRA members, because to them, true safety means prevention.  But some Republicans are still hoping they can coopt the “safety” frame to force a return to old style criminal justice policies that ignore prevention, feed the bloated “prison industrial complex,” and lead to massive taxpayer dollar waste. All of which just happen to reduce “true public safety” too. (Always use the italics!)

Prevention actually does stop a lot of crime, and it saves a lot of taxpayer money in the long run too. Moreover, once people have committed a crime, seeing to it that they get education and credible job training while incarcerated, and real support services when released also has a proven track record of reducing follow up crime. A little money spent on these efforts saves a lot more money later.  Lifting the counterproductive legal constraints now existing that keep those released from getting housing or jobs or social services, including food stamps, also reduces follow up crime. (6) If you can’t find a job, a place to live, or enough food, what other options do you have than more crime just in order to feed your family? Preventing this kind of desperation is cost effective too. That’s  just plain common sense.

But these are just the facts. Long experience and modern cognitive science have shown that we need a better frame much more than we need facts or statistics. That’s why I propose that we counter-frame “public safety” right back to make it “true public safety means prevention.” Let’s make it the key to evoke an American story about how we are the “can do” people who have figured out how to prevent a lot of crime in practical new ways that work and save money too. That’s just being American “smart on crime.”  The same American stories that work on the national level apply to state level politics too, because, as every 4th of July shows in the small towns of American, being American is a local story too.

Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project and author of  Move Our Message: How To Get America’s Ear.  The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.

1. Nicholas Riccardi, “Crime as a New Republican Political Tactic,” Associated Press, referenced in Politico’s Playbook for 7.06.13.

2. “Peace in Gangland,” by John Buntin, The New York Times Magazine, 7.14.13, p. 38.

3. Ibid., and also “How to Cut Prison Costs,” House editorial, The New York Times,” 1.30.2012.  

4. See note 2 above re “Peace in Gangland,” p.44 especially. This section of the article includes a fascinating set of findings about the importance of the street’s perception of “fairness” and “legitimacy” in police work. It also includes a very interesting examination of why New York City’s “stop and frisk” tactic failed to stop murders.

5. Although I first launched the “gun safety” frame on my Twitter feed, @SusanCStrong, on August 14, 2012, it began to go viral in a big way after the terrible Sandy Hook tragedy, as I kept repeating it on Twitter and elsewhere.

6. “Unfair Punishments,” House editorial, The New York Times, 3.17.13.

Originally posted to SusanCStrong on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 10:34 AM PDT.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging.

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