05/10/2012 05:30 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

"Prison Break" Lemonade

The New York Times reports that savvy marketers trying to reach new audiences are developing TV ads with several different endings. The goal is "to entertain the target audience of men and women ages 21 to 34" so that they don't just zap through the spots.

One of the first such ads, for Mike's Hard Lemonade, shows a young guy handing a lemonade to a friend on a golf course. But as one of the presumably entertaining alternate endings, we get to see "convicts emerge from a hole on the golf course as part of a prison break." The visual -- a grizzled 60-something white guy with a hardened look -- seems like he's got in mind something much more threatening than sharing a lemonade.

As someone who's spent a career working on criminal justice reform issues, I suppose I'm more sensitive than most to such caricatures, and many people might tell me to just get over it. And I suppose I should be pleased to see that the guy emerging from the prison break isn't a black guy with a hoodie who would play into longstanding public imagery of "criminals" in our midst.

But I don't think I should get over it, nor should any of us. First, this sounds very much like telling women to just get over sexist beer commercials because, after all, they're only trying to sell beer. And here's why I think it's particularly problematic. For far too long, our approach to developing public policy on issues of crime and punishment has been overly framed by sensationalist imagery. Most prominent, of course, was the 1988 Willie Horton messaging campaign -- a horrendous murder committed by a violent offender granted a furlough by Gov. Michael Dukakis -- that was credited with being a significant factor in George H. W. Bush winning the presidential election. We can see this in popular culture as well. The television series Oz, for example, displayed weekly images of prisoners of all races seemingly intent on committing senseless violence on each other.

There's nothing wrong with calling attention to failings of the criminal justice system, which are profound in many respects. Where the problem comes in is twofold. First, we're a nation of 300 million people with an incarcerated population of more than two million. So it should be rather obvious that it's probably not a good idea to formulate public safety policy based on a single isolated incident, no matter how tragic it may be. Second, visual imagery is very powerful. There's no shortage of academic studies and policy reports that provide sober analyses of crime and punishment issues in ways that suggest how we could develop more cost-effective and humane approaches to these problems. But in a political environment framed by images of random and seemingly out of control violence, it's very difficult for these more rational assessments of the problem to gain attention.

Just to be clear, I think that we should be telling stories of how the criminal justice system works. But we should do so in a way that attempts to illuminate the complex realities of the system from a variety of perspectives. The award-winning journalist Ted Conover, for example, captures the tense reality of a maximum security prison from the perspective of both prisoners and guards in his compelling memoir Newjack. And Susan Sarandon's portrayal of Sr. Helen Prejean as a Death Row visitor in Dead Man Walking exposes us to the compound tragedies unleashed by a murder for the family members, the death row prisoner, and yes, all of us.

I've witnessed the power of storytelling myself in a program I coordinated with a lifers group at Michigan's Jackson Prison. The program consisted of bringing in church and community leaders to spend an afternoon in conversation with the lifers. The men in the prison group had generally been sentenced to serve life in prison because they had been convicted of murder or armed robbery. Typically, they had committed their crimes as teenagers, and by the time they turned 30 or 40 had become different people. They had grown up, many were remorseful for what they had done, and they were now trying to make the best of their lives in difficult circumstances. Of the hundreds of visitors who came through the program, none were unaffected by their experience inside. For most, the interactions raised the issue of how they, and society, should attempt to find a balance between responding to the harm these men had inflicted on others and the growth and potential of their lives today. Not an easy question, but fundamental to how we need to think about crime and punishment.

Despite the distorted story-telling that too often frames the public safety debate, there is in fact reason to be hopeful that we may be entering a different era. In recent years, there has been growing bipartisan interest on the part of policymakers in exploring evidence-based programming that can produce better outcomes in both the courtroom and the prison. There is increasing attention as well to the ripple effects of having a world-record number of people behind bars, both to the children and families on the outside as well as through the investment of enormous resources into a bloated prison system at the expense of front-end support for crime prevention and treatment.

So, to the clever advertising people trying to sell lemonade by comedic prison breaks, maybe it's time to join the 21st century. Couldn't you use some visuals of cute babies or clowns to encourage people to buy lemonade? Doing so would help us at least a little in trying to have a more constructive dialogue on a vital public policy issue.