The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 5, 2016

People first: Changing the way we talk about those touched by the criminal justice system

April 4, 2016

Language is powerful. When we talk about people who come into contact with the criminal justice system and refer to them as “offenders,” “inmates,” or “convicts,” we cause these people’s offenses to linger long after they’ve paid their debt to society. Such labeling is both dehumanizing and stigmatizing, ascribing scarlet letters to people based on actions that arguably represent the worst days of their lives rather than who they are sons, sisters, parents, and community members.

After considerable discussion and joint reflection, we at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center are now striving to use words that respect the dignity of all people. As researchers, our work presents a responsibility and an opportunity to influence how the field—and the public—thinks and talks about the populations affected by the policies and programs we study.

How did we get here?

While we’ve been debating language choices among ourselves for some time, our effort to rethink how we talk about justice-involved populations began in earnest last November when two of our colleagues wrote a research brief on who serves time in federal prison for drug offenses.

Recognizing that the research community shapes prevailing opinions through language, the authors challenged themselves to write the brief in a way that avoided the “offender” label. This exercise, and the discussion it prompted, showed us it could be done.

Emboldened, we took the same approach in our work with the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, helping the task force produce a comprehensive report on federal prison reform that embraces affirming language and deliberately excludes the “o-word.”

This spurred us to step back as a group and examine the full spectrum of our research projects and the range of human experiences they address, from elderly people in prisons; to gay, lesbian, and transgender youth who trade sex for survival because they have found themselves living on the street; to people who survive sexual assault, human trafficking, or other acts of violence. Some of our staff, particularly those who specialize in victimization and vulnerable populations, were ahead of the rest of us and helped lead us to our current thinking.

What’s next?

Going forward, we have adopted a set of principles that will guide how we write and speak about the people at the center of our work:

  • Be aware. Be conscious of the power we have to represent (or misrepresent) other people’s experiences. As researchers, we should strive to “do no harm.”
  • Reduce stigma. The labels used to describe people (e.g., “offender” or “criminal”) can contribute to the stigmatization of already-marginalized populations.
  • Consider the whole person. People are not defined by only one experience or aspect of their identity. People-first language (e.g., "person with a criminal record" or "incarcerated person") is one example of language that humanizes individuals.
  • Respect preference. Whenever possible, researchers should ask the people and communities they are working with about the language they use to identify themselves.

We applaud the dialogue that has already started on this, thanks to leaders in our field like JustLeadershipUSA’s Glenn Martin and news organizations like The Marshall Project. We hope that this conversation continues. We especially want to hear from our partners in the criminal justice field on what the opportunities and challenges are for adopting more humanizing language systemwide. 

Illustration by Gary Waters/Getty Images

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.