How “if it bleeds, it leads” impacts democracy



Peter Enns
Peter Enns

The problems with the prison system in the U.S. have been well documented, but what’s not talked about nearly as often is how things got this way. Why does there seem to be such enthusiasm for putting people in jail? One answer might be the shift toward “risk management policing” that Frank Baumgartner described in last week’s episode, but there’s something else at play — and that’s what we explore this week with Peter Enns.

Peter is an associate professor of Government at Cornell University and author of Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World. Peter argues that, since the 1970s, media coverage has shaped public opinion about incarceration, which lead to an increase in people going to prison even as the crime rate went down. This created a vicious cycle of people seeing news about crimes, becoming more supportive of punitive measures, and a shift away from viewing prison as a rehabilitative experience.

Much like we heard from last week about the empathy gap in policing, a similar gap exists between the people going to jail and the people watching or reading news stories about the criminal justice system. Peter taught in Cornell’s prison education program and saw firsthand what daily life looks like for inmates and the possibilities that exist for prison reform programs.

One final note: We added a new voice into the mix this week. Andy Grant, our audio engineer, had some questions for Peter that you’ll hear toward the end of the interview.

Additional Information

Peter’s book, Incarceration Nation

Cornell Prison Education Program

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Why do you think the general public has largely supported more punitive measures over the last several decades?
  • Do you think the saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ holds true? What role do you think media has here?
  • What other changes would you make to the current criminal justice system?
  • Is it antithetical to a democratic society to have so many people incarcerated?
  • We have a very high recidivism rate. This means once you’ve been to jail, you’re likely to end up going back due to a parole violation or another violation. How do you think the system can better prepare convicts to get out and stay out?
  • Going forward, do you think our incarceration rate will decrease?

Interview Highlights

[4:58] Why do so many people in the United States want others to face jail time?

Peter: A Key to this study is noting how public opinion has shifted on this issue over time. The trend towards supporting incarceration really picked up across the sixties through to the nineties. A large factor in this trend was how media covered crime.

[5:38] How do you think the media contributes to how the public perceives the issue of crime where they live?

Peter: There are two aspects of this. One is the “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of media coverage of crime. Also, the number of crimes committed by racial minorities are largely over reported.

[7:15] How have things changes over time?

Peter: This is really interesting because the crime rate has actually been decreasing since the 90’s but many people aren’t aware of this. The public has become less punitive as crime rates have gone down. However, the trend is not in line with the rate in decrease of crime. While the trend in public opinion is starting to change, the problem is that there is such a massive system in place that it is difficult to reverse this high incarceration rate. It is not as simply as turning off a switch. However, some meaningful changes have been occurring.

One example is that there has been a lot of discussion recently around the cash bail system and how strange it is. The way this works is that if you’re arrested and can’t afford your judge set bail, you’re going to stay in jail until trial. Many localities are revisiting this. The decriminalization of drug offenses is also a massive development impacting the incarceration rate.

[9:45] How does the prison experience impact ones views on government when they eventually get out of prison?

Peter: A large role in how we view government is our interaction with aspects of government such as the DMV. Imagine being in prison and having life as a prisoner being your main interaction with a government entity or structure. That tends to have a negative effect on levels of political participation amongst those who have been previous locked up.

[11:53] Is there an empathy gap where those who are in power are not aware of the problems in the criminal justices system?

Peter: Absolutely. Another important aspect of this is to remember that those who have been convicted are being judges based on likely the worst thing they’ve ever done. Imagine how we’d feel if we were publicly evaluated over and over again based on the worst thing we ever did.

[12:50] Could you tell us about your work with the Cornell prison education program?

Peter: Most recently, I was teaching a course in Auburn correctional facility. What the program does is teach college level education courses to those in maximum security prison in the middle of New York State. The course I thought to the convicts was the same one I thought as part of a senior seminar for government students. The students did a great job and it was a phenomenal experience.

[13:58] In this program, did you see a difference in the way the inmates were handling the course as compared to Cornell students you had lectured in the past?

Peter: I would say there was a higher level of maturity amongst the students. A large misconception that I came into contact with is the idea that inmates have a ton of free time to just sit around and read. However, many of them are assigned work detail within prison. In this sense, they are a lot like your regular college student who also has a part time job they have to juggle along with school work.

[16:00] How do you think the public’s attitude towards incarceration match with its position on other issues?

Peter: A key concept here is how someone will reintegrate with society. The vast majority of those incarcerated right now will be released back into society. Regardless as to ones political association, data shows that we all want people to be successfully introduced back into society once released from prison. However, this common interest is over powered by the punitive state. A major problem here is the parole board system

We know there is a high recidivism rate. A large portion of this is due to technical violations of parole terms. Such as the use of drugs of those who are addicted to drugs. If someone relapse, which is very common amongst addicts, will end up in someone out of parole ending up back in prison. One way to address this could be to provide a better support system for those leaving prison. For example, people who I know who have been in prison faced living in a homeless shelter the first night out because there was no structure to hell them integrate back into society.

[21:00] There have been more discussion around this administration about prison reforms. Where do you think these conversations are heading?

Peter: I think we’ve seen an increase in efforts because of the role of public opinion, which as the data shows is trending towards a decrease in support for heavy incarceration. However, due to high level of political polarization at the federal level, most of the actual legislative progress that we’ve seen has been as the state and local level. A perfect example of this involves discussion to close Rikers Island in New York. The debate now is just how quickly it will be closed. It is sort of stunning think about this ironing symbol of incarceration in America facing closure.

[22:30] Do you think our criminal justice system is more structured as a punitive or rehabilitative system?

Peter: I think the balance has shifted over the course of time. Right now, I think it is shifting away from a punitive minded system. However, right now I think the system is certainly more punitive orientated.


Leave a Reply

*