Being smart on crime in nine seconds.

Author:Weedon, Joey R.
Position:Legislative Issues

During the 1968 presidential race, when President Nixon ran against Hubert Humphrey, the average length of one of their sound bites on network news was 43 seconds. By 1988, when George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis ran for president, the average length had dropped to nine seconds with subsequent election sound bites remaining at about nine seconds. This should raise a key question: What, of substance, can be said in nine seconds?

The answer is simple--not much. And candidates know this. If an individual is going to be heard for only a few moments on the network news, there is almost no opportunity to educate the public about specific policy proposals. So, the advantage goes to the candidate who appeals to pre-existing prejudices already present in the public. Thus, sound bites come off as snappy and cogent if they reinforce what people have heard many times before and are already inclined to believe.

On criminal justice issues, this has come to mean that a politician must be "tough on crime." This phrase singularly captures the pre-existing prejudices the public has on issues relating to criminal justice. This message seems to reinforce what the public wants to hear and makes them feel safer.

The majority of the public has never considered the issue of inmates reentering society. This is simply an aspect of the tough-on-crime rhetoric that has not entered the public debate. Thus, it is not an issue on which politicians are going to spend their nine seconds. However, corrections officials know that more than 97 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. inmates will eventually be released to return to society. This means that this year, as in past years, nearly 650,000 people will be released from the nation's prisons.

Many of these men and women who leave prisons and jails each year do so with substance abuse disorders, chronic health issues, low levels of education and job training, and a general lack of resources to help them...

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