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July 3, 2019

"Language matters for justice reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Hill commentary authored by Deanna Hoskins. I recommend the whole piece, and here is an excerpt:

Words such as offenders, convicts, prisoners and felons have existed in our lexicon for decades if not centuries.  But in recent years people have begun speaking out against the use of these dehumanizing terms.  Eddy Ellis, the late justice reform leader, penned a letter more than 15 years ago that ignited a movement demanding an end to dehumanizing language. He wrote, “The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me is that I begin to believe it myself ‘for, as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ It follows, then, that calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be.”

Movement leaders have long-recognized Mr. Ellis’s call to use humanizing language — but journalists, elected officials, and people new to the field must recognize this and make the shift as well.  In some state corrections systems, offensive terms such as “inmate” and “offender” have been banned from prisons.  A few years ago, the Department of Justice Office of Justice program that oversees criminal justice efforts announced that it would no longer use the word felon or convict in any of its communications and grant solicitations, instead using “a person who committed a crime.”  Resources including Mr. Ellis’ letter, the Social Justice Phrase Guide and The Opportunity Agenda’s toolkit are readily available to help people understand humanizing “people-first” language and why it’s important.

When we no longer define someone in the media or other arenas as “other,” we shift culture and policies toward human rights and dignity.  By making a conscious effort to change, we can use language that addresses injustice without dehumanizing people — especially black and brown people facing disproportionate discrimination after a record. Several years ago racial justice advocates, successfully stopped media outlets such as the Associated Press from using the phrase “illegal immigrant” which implied that a person’s existence violated the law.  Doing so brought attention to the mistreatment and human rights violations experienced by immigrants seeking refuge in this country.

We can achieve the same in the justice space. We must all commit to using terms such as “formerly incarcerated or incarcerated person” or “person with a felony conviction” instead of “ex-con,” “felon,” or “inmate.”  By doing so we make a conscious effort to recognize and respect people’s humanity.  To do otherwise only reinforces the second-class status we relegate upon many people in this country and therefore stalls our efforts toward equal justice for all.

I am quite sympathetic to the spirit and substance of this commentary, but I fear I will continue to struggle to move away from short-hand terminology like offender and prisoner (rather than person who committed an offense or person in prison).  

July 3, 2019 at 11:11 AM | Permalink


Such efforts are doomed to failure over time. All that happens is that the new phrasing will become the “perjorative” that has been replaced. Then, of course, there is the problem that the new phrasing does not properly capture what actually occurred. In that instance, people will come to realize they’re being lied to and they speculate that things may be worse than the facts may justify.

No humanity is being recognized or restored with this new language. Personally, I find such efforts wasteful, misguided and not particularly cognizant of human nature. At most, success in this area becomes a small, meaningless victory for advocacy groups to celebrate as “slowly bring the frog to a boil” in destruction of the truth. People don’t like being lied to.

Posted by: David | Jul 4, 2019 11:26:17 AM

A thing should be called what it is. If someone is still in prison, they are an "inmate". Once they have been released, I wouldn't mind "former inmate".

Interesting to note that AA takes the opposite approach to recovery. Even if someone has been clean for 10 years, they are still supposed to call themselves a "recovering alcoholic".

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jul 10, 2019 9:41:00 AM

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