Framing innocence: an experimental test of the effects of wrongful convictions on public opinion
Discourse about criminal justice in the USA increasingly revolves around wrongful convictions. Research has documented the emergence of the “innocence frame,” but relatively little is known about its effects on public opinion. We utilize framing theory to examine how various presentations of wrongful conviction information affect attitudes toward the justice system and highlight the consequences of the innocence movement for public opinion.
We implement two survey experiments to test the effects of innocence information for criminal justice attitudes. In the first experiment, we test the impact of wrongful conviction numbers relative to a control group for death penalty support. In the second experiment, we analyze the effects—both separately and jointly—of exoneration numbers and a wrongful conviction narrative relative to a control group for attitudes toward the death penalty and police reform, trust in the justice system, and personal concern.
We demonstrate that the presentation of factual numbers of exonerations reduces support for capital punishment and erodes trust in the justice system, but fails to garner support for police reforms or increase personal concern about wrongful convictions. However, a narrative about an individual wrongful conviction predictably has more pronounced effects on death penalty attitudes and increases personal concern and support for police reform, but has little effect on trust in the justice system more broadly.
Wrongful convictions are consequential for public opinion, but the effects are contingent on how the information is framed and the attitudinal outcome of interest. Our findings have implications for criminal justice attitudes and policy, the innocence movement, and framing theory.
KeywordsWrongful conviction Innocence Miscarriage of justice Exoneration Death penalty Public opinion Framing theory Police reform Survey experiment
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