The Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, signed into law in January 2021 by Governor J.B. Pritzker, enacts extensive reform impacting many areas of the state’s criminal justice system, including the elimination of cash bail by Jan. 1, 2023.
Proponents of the SAFE-T Act say it will bring much-needed change to a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates underprivileged communities and leaves many citizens languishing in jail without a conviction, simply because they can’t afford to post bail. Opponents of the legislation contend that abolishing cash bail poses grave dangers to public safety, despite evidence to the contrary, with some going so far as publishing fake newspapers to spread false claims that the SAFE-T Act would automatically release those accused of serious crimes back into the community.
Few organizations have done more to advance the fight against cash bail than The Bail Project. Each year the national nonprofit provides no-cost bail assistance and pretrial support services for thousands of low-income individuals, while at the same time campaigning to eliminate cash bail and racial disparities in the pretrial process.
The Bail Project has proven unusually successful at reaching voters across political lines. Using Civis Analytics’ Creative Focus online testing tool to gauge the persuasiveness of its bail reform messages, The Bail Project determined that economic-themed messaging was most successful at increasing support for legislation ending cash bail, while messages spotlighting the moral toll of the cash bail system proved most effective for driving donations to its cause — insights suggesting the organization should disambiguate these messages for maximum impact.
Just how is The Bail Project marshaling bipartisan support in such a divided political climate? Civis spoke to Camilo Ramirez, the organization’s chief communications officer, to explore how it connects with audiences on both sides of the bail reform debate. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Civis Analytics: The conversation around bail reform is increasingly polarized. How is The Bail Project navigating this challenge?
Camilo Ramirez: The mindset that you bring to your communications strategy in support of any advocacy goal is very important. As an issue becomes more and more polarized, it is tempting to dismiss the other side and turn them into a caricature. It is vital to stay open, curious, and to respect your audience — especially those that fervently disagree with you — in order to design effective strategies for persuasion.
We have a lot more in common than we think. The puzzle is figuring out how to reveal a common ground so you can build a shared understanding of an issue from there. It starts with understanding your audience — not just their demographics and consumer habits, but why they think about an issue in a certain way. What are the beliefs, social mindsets, cultural narratives, and assumptions that shape their thinking? What are the gaps in the understanding of an issue that you must bridge?
Most fundamentally, you have to respect the intelligence of your audience and the experiences and stories that shape their thinking. Otherwise your own prejudice might blind you. This mindset is essential for an effective communications strategy, particularly the more heated a debate gets.
Civis: How do you build this understanding?
Ramirez: At the strategy level, you first need to develop an empirical understanding of the dominant frames through which people interpret the issue you are working on. With that understanding, you can move to the tactical level and create messages, narratives, and stories that reinforce or shift a frame.
At The Bail Project, we have several ways of framing the injustice of cash bail. These frames are not mutually exclusive, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. The key is how to sequence them for optimal impact. That approach varies depending on the target audience, the context, and even the format of the communication. Ultimately, the whole package needs to clarify the problem and answer three questions for the intended audience:
With bail reform, there are a few entry points depending on who you are trying to persuade and their starting point in terms of base knowledge about the issue. With some audiences, it might be most effective to start with a historical perspective on how we got to this point and explain how the use of bail became distorted and now corrupts the integrity of the justice process by creating a two-tier system. With others, you might want to start with a fiscal argument about the misuse of taxpayer dollars to detain people before trial, then shift to a practical social policy argument that lays out the alternatives. With others, there might be critical gaps in their understanding of the bail process and its inequities, so you have to start by filling those gaps through storytelling and education.
Ultimately, you are trying to tap into a set of shared values. The issue of bail is a great example of the possibilities and the challenges. The issue has become quite controversial, yet the values and principles at stake are indisputable. The Bail Project embarked on its mission because we believe in the promise of equal justice. We believe in fairness. We believe in the importance of due process. We believe in progress. We believe that you can have accountability without trampling over people’s rights and attacking their dignity. We believe that money has no place in the exercise of justice. I see great possibilities for establishing common ground, because we all value these things. The challenge is how to cut through the noise of misinformation and the political agendas of entrenched interests.
Another issue here is audience fatigue. We are all being bombarded with issues of critical importance that demand our attention, all while trying to survive from day to day. So you can’t just come to people with problems. You have to present solutions and a vision that can inspire hope. This is also important for how you frame advocacy.
Ramirez: Yes, among other approaches. In a policymaking space, the combination of a fiscal argument for a better use of tax dollars and a practical argument for why cash bail does not enhance public safety is powerful. We’re spending billions of dollars every year to incarcerate people before they’ve been convicted, and largely misusing jails to sweep under the rug matters of public health, racial inequity, homelessness, and lack of economic opportunity. It’s a bad return on investment. And the reliance on cash bail is not making us any safer. Wouldn’t you rather have judges making decisions about pretrial release and detention based on evidence and due process than money as a proxy for who goes free?
With broader audiences — non-expert, non-policymaking audiences — that’s not necessarily the best approach. Sometimes the practical argument works quite well, but when facts don’t carry weight or you lack credibility, a moral argument can be more effective if coupled with the right messenger.
Then there is the challenge of widespread fear taking hold. This is definitely becoming the case in the bail reform context. Individual bad stories can dominate the headlines for weeks, even if they are the rare exception. Fear-mongering is an old tactic in the playbook to stop change. And you can’t always counter fear with facts alone — I wish it worked that way, but it doesn’t. Here’s where storytelling is so important in our work. It is a powerful strategy for countering a generalized fear of the “other.”
Civis: How has your thinking about bail reform messaging changed over time?
Ramirez: Public discourse in the media around this issue, both in traditional and social media, has become increasingly polarized. Even though bail reform has barely been implemented anywhere, the misleading narrative that bail reform is to blame for spikes in crime is taking hold. We are no longer operating in the context of protests for racial justice that brought clarity and urgency to these issues. We are operating in a context of fear and misinformation. So we’re thinking about framing strategies in this context and testing messages for backlash effect.
Anti-bail reform messaging presents audiences with a false choice between public safety and protecting our rights in criminal proceedings. We need to convince the public that these goals are not mutually exclusive. We can and must do both. Better justice is better justice for everybody. Taking money out of the justice process not only protects the presumption of innocence and removes a cover for racial discrimination, but it will also improve judicial decision-making on matters of public safety. The biggest change in my thinking about bail reform messaging is the shift in focus to how to resolve this false choice in the stories we tell about the need for change.