“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” writes Brian Stevenson in his book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” And yet the language we use to identify people convicted of crimes—even in The Daily Record — frequently reduces people to just that.
Terms like “criminal,” “offender,” “convict,” “felon,” “inmate,” and “prisoner” are a shorthand for conveying a person’s status — that they have been convicted of a crime, that they are currently incarcerated. But those terms flatten everything else about the person: that they are a parent, a student, a worker, a churchgoer, a human being.
They deprive the incarcerated person of individuality, of an identity beyond their crime. Incarcerated people hear it as an insult heaped on top of the many indignities of prison. And, as Lisette Bamenga writes, that language makes it easy to ignore how people in prison are denied basic human needs and the many challenges people face after they are released from prisons. ‘“Convicts’ don’t deserve decent food, non-toxic facilities and quality medical care. ‘Criminals’ shouldn’t expect to have necessities such as housing and employment.”
The General Assembly recently passed the Juvenile Restoration Act, which allows anyone who has served at least 20 years of a sentence imposed when they were a minor to petition the court for a sentence reduction. Legislation like the JRA recognizes that people who commit crimes, even terrible crimes, have the capacity to grow, to change, and to return and contribute to the community.
Formerly incarcerated people are doing essential work in any number of spaces, including in trying to reduce the violence that plagues Baltimore. To reduce these people to “inmates” or “criminals” permanently identifies them as the people they were at the time of conviction, ignoring everything that happened in their lives before that moment and everything that has happened since.
The Marshall Project, a news organization dedicated to writing about the criminal justice system, recently declared its intention to use “people-first” language, which “avoids turning one aspect of a person’s life into an all-encompassing label.” This means using constructions that aren’t as succinct — incarcerated people or people in prison rather than prisoners or inmates — and describing what someone was convicted of, rather than calling them a felon or convict.
Other media organizations, including The Daily Record, should adopt similar conventions. The punishment inflicted by the criminal system should not include the denial of a person’s humanity. Language matters.
Editorial Advisory Board members James K. Archibald, James B. Astrachan, Arthur F. Fergenson, Debra G. Schubert and H. Mark Stichel did not participate in this opinion.
EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS
James B. Astrachan, Chair
James K. Archibald
Andre M. Davis
Arthur F. Fergenson
Julie C. Janofsky
Ericka N. King
C. William Michaels
Angela W. Russell
Debra G. Schubert
H. Mark Stichel
The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.