Advocates for prisoners and former prisoners are increasingly determined to purge the criminal justice vocabulary of language that turns an individual’s record into an indelible brand.
Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (and a member of our advisory board) puts it this way in his book, “Just Mercy”: “We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’ — identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.”
As a news organization that covers the criminal justice system, we hear regularly from advocates who object to terms like “inmate” and “parolee” as “the language of the labelers.”
"While some of us use prisoner or ex-prisoner, we are increasingly moving toward humanizing terms like formerly incarcerated person. We even use FIP in the twittersphere, though I'm not recommending that." That comes from James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois, and an FIP himself.
Eric Waters of the Osborne Association, which helps former prisoners re-enter society, said his organization has made an effort to eliminate from its vocabulary “the oftentimes dehumanizing language of the criminal justice system, that is, defining people by the crime they were convicted of or their ‘status’ in the criminal justice system (parolee, probationer, prisoner, defendant)...We talk about people, people convicted of crimes, people involved in the criminal justice system, people in prison, people on parole, etc.”
In a somewhat different vein, the people on the other side of the bars want to be called corrections officers — or “correctional peace officers” — not guards.
Journalists tend to resist banishing useful, accurate, and widely understood descriptors in favor of euphemism or political correctness. But usage evolves. What was once commonplace is recognized as offensive (“colored,” “illegals”). What once may have sounded labored or affected enters the mainstream.
I recently set out to draft some guidelines for the writers of The Marshall Project — not a list of proscribed words, but some principles to keep in mind. This is how far I got:
When it’s relevant to a story (and, given our subject matter, it will often be relevant), we do not need to tiptoe around the fact that someone was convicted of a crime, or served time. There’s nothing wrong with referring to people charged with crimes as defendants, people who have been convicted of a crime as criminals or felons, people who are incarcerated as inmates or prisoners, and to those who have been paroled as parolees — especially when we are discussing policies and practices that affect those people as categories. When their status in the criminal justice system is the subject, it makes sense to refer to them by their status.
At the same time, especially when we are dealing with individuals, we want to be careful about using language that is needlessly reductive or belittling, or that turns a behavior into an identity, or that employs a label as a kind of gratuitous shorthand. Once we have established that a subject served time for a crime, we should not make every subsequent reference “the ex-felon,” “the convicted rapist,” etc. The person has a name.
At which point, not completely satisfied, I stopped and set my guidance-in-progress aside. And now I invite a little guidance from you. This is not a plebiscite; we’ll make our own decision. But we have an audience that includes a lot of people immersed in issues of criminal justice, and who probably have wrestled with the sensitivities of criminal-justice language. I invite you to tell us what you think by filling out the form below. We may feature your comment on the Marshall Project.
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