BARS Editorial: Our Criminal Justice Language Matters

by Cary Holley

When discussing criminal justice reform, it is essential to remember that we are talking about real people. In order to prevent the further dehumanization of those impacted by the carceral state, we must actively monitor the language that we employ. The language that shapes these debates matters, and accordingly, BARS sought to provide an introductory guide for ensuring that our language affords compassion to those who offer suffer from a lack of it.

A quick glance through the headlines relevant to criminal justice reveals one noticeable pattern: the usage of terms such as “prisoners” and “inmates.” As justice reform advocates, we must not be complacent and acquiesce to the ubiquity of these terms. In a world in which such labels can severely reduce one’s likelihood of gaining employment or finding affordable housing, the further ostracization of formerly-incarcerated individuals through the use of unnecessarily alienating language can and must be avoided. [1] Thus, here is a quick, introductory guide for improving the rhetoric of our criminal justice reform debates:

Overall, it is essential to emphasize that you are talking about people when referring to incarcerated individuals. As Danielle Sered of Common Justice states: “What we need is a criminal justice policy for *people* who commit crime — incarcerated “people*, *people with felony convictions*, *people* on parole. . .” [2]

Replace “inmate” or “prisoner” with “incarcerated person.” Our society’s dire need to reform prison conditions is a vital step for humanizing the experiences of incarcerated people. Similarly, say “formerly-incarcerated person” rather than ex-felon. The implementation of ban-the-box initiatives right here in Pennsylvania are a beacon of hope for formerly-incarcerated Pennsylvanians who hope to successfully re-enter society. Clearly, the use of such politically conscious vocabulary is a feasible endeavor that can be practiced by all.

So, let’s take it upon ourselves to change the way that we talk about criminal justice reform and the people directly affected by it. Although we are living at a time when terms such as ‘political correctness’ inspire rebuke and snide remarks, the use of politically correct language when discussing our society’s most vulnerable population should be an opportunity for bipartisan consensus rather than division. Further, to use language that perpetually defines an individual by their mistakes does a disservice to us all. In 2019, let’s finally make it our goal to be compassionate towards the incarcerated people of our country.



[1] Harding, David J., Jessica J.B. Wyse, Cheyney Dobson, and Jeffrey D. Morenoff. “Making Ends Meet After Prison.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2014 Spring; 33(2) 440-470.

[2] “Resources for Humanizing Language.” The Osborne Association.

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