DeAnna Hoskins is president of JustLeadershipUSA. Zoë Towns is vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at FWD.us.
Yet when we scroll through our news feeds and Twitter, or turn on the radio or news at night — only to hear important criminal justice stories using dehumanizing labels to describe the subjects at the heart of them — it feels as if our work to build a safe and just world is only getting harder.
For too long, too many of us have accepted and reproduced the “official” jargon of the U.S. criminal justice system. Designed to desensitize, terms such as “felon,” “convict,” “offender” and “criminal” replace names and other descriptions, such as “woman,” “daughter,” “father,” “child” or “person.” These carceral labels compound punishment by reducing people to their worst moments, codifying stigma and haunting people for years after sentences are served.
Incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and convicted people have been arguing for years that not only are such labels painful for them individually — they are also not “neutral,” and they make more freedom less possible. Now we have research to back up what we’ve presumed.
Two national studies of a total of nearly 3,000 people, conducted by the bipartisan policy group FWD.us (where one of us works) and the polling firm Benenson Strategy Group, found that those surveyed were significantly more likely to describe people in negative terms and make dehumanizing associations — considering a person “dangerous,” for instance — when they were defined by labels such as “felon” and “habitual offender.”
Conversely, when respondents were exposed to what are known as “people first” terms — alternatives such as “person with a felony conviction” or “person with prior convictions” — they were far more likely to have a more positive association.
When looking at mock newspaper headlines and articles that used either dehumanizing or people-first language (but were otherwise identical), 75 percent of those who read these stories were less likely to support reform or to empathize with the people discussed when dehumanizing labels were used.
Across the study, respondents age 50 or older were as much as twice as likely as other groups to change their views depending on the terminology used. This matters beyond how language skews individual views on crime and punishment, because this age group — one whose members are more likely to be White, rural and conservative — has outsize influence in shaping, enacting and implementing criminal justice laws. As we note in our report, people over age 50 make up only 36 percent of the U.S. population but 82 percent of state governors and 74 percent of members of Congress. Fifty is the average age at which federal judges are appointed.
The movement calling for people-first language isn’t new. In 2016, under the administration of President Barack Obama, the Office of Justice Programs announced it would scrub harmful carceral terms from its website, grant solicitations and speeches. (The policy was rescinded by the agency during the Trump administration and has yet to be reinstated by the Biden administration.) Recently, the criminal-justice-focused Marshall Project committed to a people-first style guide. We urge other journalism organizations to follow its lead.
Words alone did not make and will not unmake mass incarceration and mass criminalization. But they do make a difference. Over the past 15 months we’ve witnessed the pandemic rage through prisons, turning even more jail stays and prison terms into death sentences. We’ve asked again and again what it would really take to defend Black lives from policing. And through it all, we have been reminded of a statement by Eddie Ellis, a formerly incarcerated advocate and founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. In “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language,” composed in 2006, he wrote, “Calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be.”
Our new research proves Ellis’s point. We hope it will inspire a commitment from the news media and the general public to adopt more responsible and humane language. If we truly want to rethink the way safety and justice are pursued in this country, we must all recognize that the tens of millions of individuals and families who come into contact with the system are people, first.