The blog of the Urban Institute
May 28, 2021

Person-First Language Is Not Enough

May 28, 2021

Society often refers to people involved in the criminal justice system as “criminals,” “inmates,” and “offenders,” labels that dehumanize, stigmatize, and strip people of their dignity. Recently, the criminal justice field has begun shifting toward person-first language. Instead of referring to people as “inmates,” we call them “incarcerated people.” Instead of “convicts,” we say, “people convicted of crimes.” 

Although the shift to person-first language is a critical step, it should not be the goal. The goal is systemic change that creates equitable outcomes for all people. Systemic change in the criminal justice system involves altering institutional policies, practices, and cultures to eliminate disparate outcomes based on race, ethnicity, gender, ability, history of incarceration, and other marginalized identities.

Language shifts do not mean system shifts

Scholars, practitioners, journalists, and the general public should be wary of using language shifts as measures of achievement toward social change. History demonstrates that such shifts do not equate to dismantling systems of oppression. Over time, there have been several shifts in politically correct terms to refer to people across the African diaspora in the United States, including “nigger,” “negro,” “colored,” “African American,” and “Black.” None of these transitions have resulted in the realization of equitable treatment and outcomes for Black people in this country.

Additionally, language shifts can involve replacing terms with those that are technically correct and socially appropriate yet may become stigmatic. “Inmate” is defined as a person confined to an institution such as a prison or hospital. Although technically accurate, over time, the term became stigmatized. Language is a social construct; the meaning of words can change. Therefore, although the current shift to person-first language may hold the high moral ground now, no word or phrase is immune from stigmatization.

How we can create systemic change

Advocates of language shifts should never downplay the complexities of labeling marginalized people. We cannot feel contentment nor accomplishment attached to successful language changes, no matter how far-reaching. Person-first language is all talk—literally. Systemic change is the walk. Drawn from a series of focus groups of law enforcement officers, here are three ways criminal justice institutions can align words with actions:

  1. Ensure access to basic needs of justice-involved people. Humane conditions and interactions must be assured through mechanisms beyond language, including access to education, space, food, health care, and other factors critical to well-being.
  2. Honor the language preferences of labeled people. Respecting and preserving the language choices of people experiencing the criminal justice system is central to acknowledging their humanity. If academics, practitioners, researchers, and others charged with relaying the narratives of incarcerated people alter their voice by changing their language, we risk erasing their agency.
  3. Stop language shaming. Language-shift advocates should provide opportunities for individuals to learn and question the power of labels and the role of language in social change. Incarcerated people, victims of crime, medical workers, and criminal justice practitioners may each be comfortable with using different terms to refer to justice-involved people, grounded in their experiences. Advocates should strive to integrate language shifts in ways that do not stigmatize people who were socialized differently.

The shift toward person-first language does not change systemic oppression. Using the term “inmate” does not mean one is inhumane, just as using the phrase “incarcerated person” does not guarantee humanity. The goal is systemic change.

Systemic change in the criminal justice system must involve disruption of standard practices, meaningful inclusion of diverse voices in decisionmaking, redefining the mission and vision of justice institutions and employees, divorcing the stigma attached to justice involvement in ways that empower others, and structurally incentivizing all these changes. The steps above are a good starting point.

People who do not directly experience the criminal justice system cannot find comfort in language advocacy to the point that they neglect the need for true systemic change. Words must come with action.


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