The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 29, 2018

Restoring humanity: Changing the way we talk about people touched by the criminal justice system

November 29, 2018

On Election Day, we witnessed the restoration of 1.4 million Floridians’ voting rights from a ballot referendum that repealed a law permanently banning people with felony convictions from voting. But much of the coverage of this historic event referred to these newly eligible voters as “felons.”  

When we refer to people who are, or have been, in contact with the criminal justice system as “felons,” “offenders,” “inmates,” or “convicts,” we define them by the worst act of their lives, creating a stigma that lingers long after they’ve paid their debt to society.

If we are serious about removing barriers for people with felony convictions, we must change the words we use to describe them.

[Note: We recognize some voting rights advocates have retained this labeling language, often because of the names of the statutes they aspire to repeal. We applaud their efforts, just not their use of descriptors.] 

How did we get here?

The term “felon” literally means “wicked person” and has become a way to stigmatize those who have committed felony offenses, from homicide to tax evasion.

For centuries, criminologists erroneously regarded people who broke the law as savages and animals. Underlying this language was the false belief that those involved in the criminal justice system had a natural affinity for crime. Considered inherently subhuman and undeserving of basic respect, people involved in the criminal justice system were pejoratively and, in most cases, forever branded as “criminals.”

This history informs public conversation about voting rights restoration and has had particularly devastating effects on Black Americans. Our country’s shameful history of slavery and Jim Crow laws has cemented race as a defining feature of the American criminal justice system.

Even today, people still closely associate being a criminal with being Black. Black Americans are far more likely than white Americans to be stopped, arrested, convicted, and incur harsh sentences. Proliferating in response to the emancipation of Black people, state disenfranchisement laws have removed the right to vote from 1 in every 13 Black citizens.

Immigrants, people living in poverty, members of the LBGTQ community, and other marginalized groups also are associated with and experience higher rates of criminal justice involvement and thus disenfranchisement.

Why does it matter?

Sharply rising over past 30 years, the number of Americans with felony convictions is expected to surpass 23 million people this year. These men and women aspiring to rebuild their lives and families face myriad collateral consequences that make finding work, housing, and health care and reestablishing social networks more difficult.

These challenges are exacerbated by crime-first language that perpetuates the false notion among prospective employers, landlords, and loan officers that justice-involved people—especially those with violent convictions—are high risk.

What’s next?

Arguing against the use of crime-first terms like “offender,” “felon,” and “convict” is not merely a matter of semantics. Words matter. These labels reinforce the belief that those involved with the criminal justice system have unchangeable criminal tendencies and reduce our understanding of who people are and, more important, who they can be.

Instead, terms like “people with felony convictions,” “people who are incarcerated,” and “formerly incarcerated people” are examples of humanizing, neutral, person-first language.

In 2016, Urban developed people-first language guidelines to describe those involved in the justice system. We got some pushback—not from people who disagreed philosophically, but from those who celebrate parsimony in prose. “People who…” language will be too lengthy, take up too much space, and yield clunky redundancy in text, they said.

Undaunted, we enlisted the support of the bipartisan, congressionally mandated Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections and produced a report with just one labeling phrase, “inmate-to-staff ratio,” a concession acknowledging a standardized Bureau of Prisons metric.

That said, we know that embracing people-first language isn’t easy; it requires mindfulness, vigilance, and sometimes editorial creativity. We’ve developed a set of principles to guide our language choices concerning people involved in the criminal justice system, as well as populations historically marginalized due to neighborhood, race, gender identity or presentation, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, intellectual or physical ability, or victimization experience.

  • 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 should reduce rather than further ingrain the stigmatization of already-marginalized populations.
  • Consider the whole person. No one should be defined by just one experience or aspect of their identity. Leading with “people” affirms our shared humanity.
  • Respect preference. Language is ever-evolving, and sometimes, marginalized populations reclaim derogatory labels as a means of empowerment. That’s what the “convict criminologists” did in the early 2000s, but the tradition dates back much further. Whenever possible, we should ask the people and communities at the center of—and partners in—our research what language they prefer.

People who commit crimes—heinous, violent, or otherwise—are still human. How we describe the men and women involved in the criminal justice system should respect their individualism, diversity, and humanity, not flatten their identity and neglect their capacity for growth.

We applaud the dialogue that has already started on this, thanks to leaders in our field like the late Eddie Ellis, and we hope 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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