The Power of Empathy: Experimental Evidence of the Impact of Perspective-Focused Interventions on Support for Prison Reform

Published date01 February 2023
Date01 February 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2023, Vol. 34(1) 20 –42
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211061326
The Power of Empathy:
Experimental Evidence of
the Impact of Perspective-
Focused Interventions on
Support for Prison Reform
Jessie Harney1
As a result of COVID-19, individuals have experienced situations that may help them
relate to others, including more limited ability to interact with their environment. Thus,
this survey experiment (N = 2,229) tests whether perspective-focused interventions
can help increase support for prison reform. Findings suggest that perspective-
getting (providing the perspective of an incarcerated individual via a narrative
description of dealing with confinement) increased self-reported support for prison
reform initiatives, compared with information only. In addition, a perspective-taking
prompt—nudging participants to put themselves in the shoes of the incarcerated
individual when reading their narrative—may help boost intention to take action in
support of prison reform. Future avenues for research and implications are discussed.
prisons, public opinion, perspective-getting, perspective-taking
According to data from the Sentencing Project (2021), the United States incarcerates
more of its population than any other nation in the world.1 The “tough on crime” rheto-
ric and punitive justice system policies of the late-20th century—from Nixon’s
“War on Drugs” to Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act—ushered in the era of mass
1University of California, Berkeley, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jessie Harney, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, 2607 Hearst Ave., Berkeley,
CA 94720, USA.
1061326CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211061326Criminal Justice Policy ReviewHarney
Harney 21
incarceration, increasing the nation’s rate of confinement by more than 500% (The
Sentencing Project, 2021). In response, prison reform efforts have often focused on
tackling mass incarceration in the past few decades, such as California’s justice system
realignment initiatives beginning in the last decade (Lofstrom & Martin, 2015).
However, public support for these efforts is sometimes waning, and therefore, the suc-
cess and continuation of reform efforts may be hindered by public dissention.
Finding effective methods for bolstering public support for these initiatives is cru-
cial given mass incarceration’s negative impacts on our nation and the minimal inca-
pacitation effect of incarceration on crime prevention (Bushway & Paternoster,
2009). One substantial effect of mass incarceration is swollen costs to the taxpayer—
the estimated average cost of housing each incarcerated individual was approximately
US$31,000 in 2010 (Henrichson & Delaney, 2012), and this realization has encour-
aged greater bipartisan support for efforts to reduce the number imprisoned or jailed
(Bellamy et al., 2012). Another effect of over-incarceration—one often overlooked
by the general public—is its harmful impact on public health outcomes. Although the
literature has long-documented the negative effects of incarceration on health (Haney,
2003), the COVID-19 pandemic has more prominently exposed incarceration’s
impact on exacerbating public health problems. The virus devastated U.S. prisons
and jails. In 2020, about 20% of individuals in prison in the United States tested posi-
tive for COVID-19 and more than 1,700 died from the virus, leading corrections
departments to release thousands of individuals from confinement (Associated Press,
2020). Like other reforms, support for these pandemic-initiated changes is vital to
sustaining the proliferation and continued momentum of efforts to end the era of mass
The COVID-19 pandemic and its mitigation efforts, including mask-wearing,
social distancing, sheltering in place, and even self-isolating, have limited the level of
control individuals have over their lives and their ability to interact with their environ-
ment. As a result of acquiring this newfound perspective, people may be more able to
be empathetic toward individuals with vastly less control over how they interact with
their environment—those who have been incarcerated during the outbreak. Therefore,
it may be timely to consider perspective-focused interventions to garner support for
prison reform efforts among the public. Perspective-focused interventions aim to help
individuals understand the perspective of another and increase empathy for others,
either through directly hearing others’ perspectives, considering how they may feel, or
getting information about their points of view. Perspective-focused interventions have
been applied in a variety of contexts, although to the author’s knowledge, no study has
addressed whether these interventions can increase empathy for incarcerated individu-
als or increase support for improving the criminal justice system more broadly. To
meet this empirical need, I conducted a survey experiment through Amazon’s
Mechanical Turk platform to test whether various perspective-focused interventions
can improve support for prison reform, as measured through self-reported endorse-
ment of various policy initiatives, beliefs about the purpose of prison, and intention to
take action in support of prison reform. Findings suggest that reading a passage of an
incarcerated individuals’ experience increased self-reported support for prison reform

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