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December 2021 | Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy beyond the easiest cases


In this paper, the authors examine the power of narratives to impact cultural, political, and policy change, arguing that narratives based on contingent morality - that is, oversimplifying people into “deserving heroes” or “undeserving villains” - undermine the potential for foundational social change. They propose that dynamic narratives, grounded in universal values such as human dignity, can better produce foundational, sustainable change; and propose a new framework for shaping transformational justice stories to accomplish this.

Greisa Martínez rosas Executive director, united we dream
Experts - Matthew Desmond b
Matt Desmond PROFESSOR of sociology, princeton university; founder, eviction lab
Greisa Martínez Rosas on organizing while undocumented

In this video, Greisa Martinez Rosas discusses her path to organizing and the importance of reimagining justice while centering people, people of color, and love.

framework for shaping new, transformational justice stories that can contribute to foundational, sustainable change

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1. Question the terms of the debate. If we offer the mirror images of negative stereotypes, we bind ourselves within a narrative frame that was employed to motivate repressive policies. New narratives for criminal-legal and immigration reform should avoid supplying new answers to the same questions.

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2. Tell personal accounts. People closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Those who have direct experience with justice and immigration systems should play key leadership roles in developing and deploying new narrative strategies.

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3. Target norms not beliefs. Leveraging empathy is often unsustainable - fury at inhumanity often dissipates when the news stops its around-the-clock coverage. Instead of provoking people to change personal beliefs, alter perceptions of social norms.

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4. Collaborate on reform movements and reform narratives. The criminal legal and immigration systems are only becoming more intertwined with increasing militarization of the border and police. Use new narratives to increase collaboration among advocacy movements and build collective political power.

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5. Base civil inclusion on shared values. Telling stories about individual moralism shifts focus away from systems committing harm en masse. Base justice narratives on a set of shared values to push forward aspirational justice policy.

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6. Ask more of each other. Typical justice narratives respond to fear, moral panic, and violence. Demand that the public has a higher tolerance for moral lapses, and extend grace to those who have done harm.

Read the Full Paper