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resensitizing incarceration sentences by attaching context to numbers

Illustration of U.S. Capitol Hill Building saying 'Wanna talk about policy reform?' and the contiguous United States saying 'meh.'

The United States has a government in which citizens elect representatives to make laws on their behalf. However, that doesn’t mean the resulting law and its execution matches the desires of the people. Why? One factor is the lack of meaningful engagement between Americans and the law they have agency to shape. Through research and prototyping, I investigated how one might create better engagement.

finding an angle of approach

illustration of a person talking a person taking notes at a table

In order to find opportunities for improvement, I interviewed American millennials due to their tendency to be less engaged in politics. Since the research was for a course about the role of time in design, I asked them about incarceration sentences, a time‑based punishment. The interviews revealed that numbers behind prison sentences were not communicative of the punishment’s consequences.

playing around with time

In response to interviewees’ thoughts, I brainstormed how one might use time to contextualize incarceration sentences. Many ideas focused on experiencing elapsed time to build empathy. I realized that a similar effect might be achieved more efficiently using a timeline.

life timeline

I invited participants that I had not interviewed to map their lives on a timeline and then chart how long someone like them should be put in jail for various crimes.

First, they created a timeline of their own life with major life events from the present day to their death. Participants then listed minor experiences and weekly routines that might happen during various stages of their life. Finally, they were asked to determine a sentence lengths for various crimes for someone their age.

Despite having a timeline full of life events to reference, participants generally only considered the landmarks of retirement and death when sentencing criminals. They tended to dish out much harsher punishments than actual averages, even though they all thought they were being more lenient than the status quo.

When asked if the activity made prison sentences have increased or decreased meaning, participants stated that they felt apathetic toward the subject.


Why did participants dole out harsher punishments despite thinking they were lenient?

Though the prototype didn’t build much empathy, it showed that an event‑based approach to representing incarceration sentences was comprehensible.

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