There seem to be five types of audiences
I would be willing to venture a guess that you fall into one of the following five categories. I do. I fall into category number 2. I’m a volunteer, one-day attorney who advocates for those who have fallen victim to ‘The System.’
The purpose of this blog is to reach people – all types of people – and to help raise awareness concerning the epidemic of wrongful convictions, which in turn generates an interest in criminal justice reform. I’ve noticed that – like with many politically charged topics – people tend to congregate in homogenous groups, wanting to hear what they want to hear, and only what they want to hear. I think it’s human nature that “preaching to the choir” comprises a large portion of ‘advocacy’ energy. Take my Twitter account, for example (where I post almost exclusively about #CJReform) – most of the people who respond to and engage with my tweets are “the choir,” i.e., victims of wrongful conviction themselves or people who already work in criminal defense or the wrongful conviction arena – namely those who fall into categories 1 and 2 (below). No surprise, right? The question is how do we reach those outside the choir?
I think being aware of these five categories is important in understanding not only who we are as people, but also how to better craft our messages so that we are actually reaching the right audience. Let’s face it, a victim of wrongful conviction does not need to be convinced of the problems inherent in our criminal justice system – neither do their friends and family. It’s those on the other end of the spectrum that need to hear the message most – that’s where real change occurs.
1. Wrongful Conviction victims and their families
Victims of wrongful conviction and their families are often in very difficult situations. If they’ve yet to be exonerated, the process of fighting for one’s freedom is a terrible task that usually lasts many years, if not decades. The toll upon families is hard to fathom, and we know from the forty plus years of research now that not only is the economic toll devastating, but the emotional toll is incalculable. These families need our support; they need to know they are not alone in their battle for freedom, and ultimately, they need at least one attorney on their side, working to exonerate them.
The Innocence Network and your local innocence organization is where much of this work takes place, but the demand for such services is more than these organizations can handle. This is where the need for continued financial support of your local innocence organization remains crucial, and for wrongful conviction advocates to help raise awareness of cases that may end up on an attorney’s radar who can actually help.
In short, the role of the advocate in relation to this audience is that of co-worker, brother in arms, sharing a similar cause – fighting for those who have very little means to fight for themselves.
2. Those who work in criminal defense and who do wrongful conviction work (this includes wrongful conviction advocates, attorneys, and lay people, and those interested in CJReform)
This group needs our support. They need to know that there’s an entire army of people who stand with them in their efforts. We have to carry the banner they hold high. These people are men and women already dedicated to the cause – it’s our job to continue to inspire them, to support legislation that makes their jobs easier, and to continue to take their cases to the rest of the world, shouting it from the rooftops. This group doesn’t need convincing, this group needs encouragement.
3. “Your average American.” People who are genuinely unaware of the wrongful conviction phenomenon, and its frequency (this group is a sort of neutral or middle ground group) – they’re neither that aware of nor interested in criminal justice reform or wrongful convictions (they tend to think the problem – if it exists at all – is somebody else’s problem)
I think this is the audience most ripe for advocacy. It’s here that even a singular account of wrongful conviction can open up an entirely new way of seeing things. Take a story like Michael Morton, Uriah Courtney, or Ron Cotton presented to ‘your average American’ and the impact can be profound. For within those stories and thousands of others like them are so many enlightening moments where ‘the average American’ has to say to themselves, “how could this have happened? – I thought our system was better than this!?,” and “This happened to Uriah Courtney, it could happen to anyone.” It’s these eye-opening experiences that can plant a seed of caution. That caution can grow into a heightened awareness as they learn of other stories from the errors of the criminal justice system, putting two and two together – beginning to see ‘The System’ for what it is. This will in turn affect how they vote, and where they put their money. This can bring about change.
4. Those who are inclined to be ideologically pro-prosecution (regardless of political party affiliation), those who consider themselves to be “law and order” types – people who tend to believe in the premise that by and large “the criminal justice system works”
Like ‘the average American,’ this audience type holds many who are ripe for advocacy. Though initially they may be less inclined to see things in a way that supports criminal justice reform, they are not so hardened as to be immovable. People with this mindset are best reached with messages of truth and objectivity – not slanderous hyperbole. The stories likely to be most impactful with this group will be the clear-cut cases of innocence where DNA has not only excluded the wrongfully accused, but has positively identified the actual culprit. Moreover, testimonies of former prosecutors like Mark Godsey and Jim Petro will probably carry more weight, because this demographic generally respects and trusts people in those positions. This audience will likely respond positively to appeals to change the system as a betterment for the community, not simply as a boon for ‘criminals.’ Sensible changes to the way our system works and modifications of obtuse or unjust laws can be avenues for common ground, especially when the change is seen in light of how it might make the judicial system more efficient, and criminal justice less expensive.
5. Prosecutors, police, and law enforcement in general
People within this group are, perhaps, the ones we want to reach the most, and they’re often the most difficult to reach – they usually already have their own opinions quite firmly rooted. Yet prosecutors are arguably the most powerful agent in the entire criminal justice system, for they often unilaterally make decisions of life and death, and this on a daily basis. For even just one to manifest an openness about the frequency of wrongful convictions, let alone to be a prosecutor friendly to the criminal justice reform movement, goes a very long way.
I think what’s important to remember here is that prosecutors, police, and law enforcement in general can be our biggest allies – we cannot bifurcate this discussion into a false dichotomy: us vs them. For that’s exactly the mentality that we often accuse the other side of – and it wrongly pits our cause against theirs. The truth of the matter is that we all want the same thing: safe communities, and true justice meted out fairly to all. We just tend to disagree on the ways to achieve that goal. I think it’s important to avoid demonizing the ‘other side,’ to do our best to find shared values and common goals. Without sounding cliché, the fact of the matter is that within our adversarial justice system, we have to find ways to work together, while still zealously advocating on behalf of those we represent. The hope is that as we learn about miscarriages of justice we won’t be unaffected, but that we’ll take that insight and apply it to helping others: the vast hundreds of thousands of people caught up in our massive incarceration nation.
Reaching outside the choir
If our goal is to reach those in all categories, but with an emphasis on those not as inclined to the need for criminal justice reform, how do we do so? I would contend that, ironically, the answer is to keep doing what we’re doing. We have to keep utilizing social media in all aspects, we have to keep getting the message out there – for we never know who will stumble upon a YouTube video featuring Justin Brooks talking about the work of the California Innocence Project, or hear a story of an exoneree on the Actual Innocence Podcast, or hear about the Innocence Network on the radio, or hear the latest exoneration discussed in a seminar, or see the effects of mass incarceration in a Netflix documentary. We never know when someone from any of the groups above will be confronted with the suffering inflicted by the criminal justice system. And so we keep telling the stories. We keep beating the drum for justice.
I hope we can discuss other ways of reaching outside the choir and I would love to read your input. It’s an important topic, and the answers will not come easily, but if we keep moving forward and learning from cumulative experience, there is a lot of good that can happen. Be sure to keep abreast of #CJReform doings and messages on Instagram: at Wrongful_Convictions