Practice Tip 101: Avoiding Offensive Language When Talking About Criminal Matters

Issue November/December 2020 December 2020 By Pauline Quirion
Criminal Justice Section Review
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Pauline Quirion

While we cannot always guarantee positive outcomes in our representation of clients, we do have control over our relationships to the extent that we treat people with respect and try to ensure that their experience with us is positive. Words can be hurtful and perpetuate negative stereotypes regardless of our intentions. By using more people-centered language and avoiding negative or judgmental terminology, we can avoid alienating and offending clients with criminal cases as well as their families and the communities we serve.

Replacing negative terminology with more affirmative language

Offensive terminology. Avoid use of words such as offender, ex-offender, convict, felon, ex-felon, juvenile delinquent or convicted criminal.

People-centric language.1 Examples of alternative phrases include: people who are or were incarcerated; person in prison, jail or custody; person with a criminal case to be sealed or expunged; person with a past conviction or juvenile adjudication; or person with a pending criminal or juvenile case. Some clients and advocates think the term “inmate” is similarly dehumanizing, so it is best to also avoid this term in your advocacy for a person who is incarcerated.

Why make a change? Negative idioms stigmatize people without acknowledging their full identities or the possibility for individual growth and future success. People-centric language does not equate individuals with their criminal charges, case dispositions or confinement status. The stigma of a criminal record is so severe that individuals with past criminal cases often must engage in Herculean efforts to obtain employment, housing and financial stability. Using language that clients and others consider derogatory can lead to uncomfortable interactions and perpetuates negative stereotypes that impede opportunities for second chances. There also is no evidence that perpetual shaming reduces crime or recidivism.

Words such as “offender” also presume either actual guilt or a finding of guilt, which may not be accurate. While some individuals are convicted of an offense or incarcerated, many people have cases that did not end in convictions or sentences to jail or prison.

Changing other offensive terminology

Some individuals who are charged with criminal offenses may be struggling with substance use disorders, or they may be immigrants. Lawyers as well as the general public may use similar negative jargon to refer to such individuals.

Offensive terminology. Avoid use of negative words such as addict, junkie, or drug and alcohol abuser. Many experts indicate that this type of stigmatizing language may also discourage people from seeking treatment.2

People-centric language. Instead, say client or person with a substance use disorder.

Offensive terminology. Avoid referring to people who are immigrants as illegal or illegals.

People-centric language. Instead, say that the person is undocumented or not a citizen. Use of the term “illegal” is also not accurate because, although a person may not have lawful immigration status, a person cannot be “illegal.” Many immigrants, while not yet U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, also may have lawful immigrant status.

Conclusion

Our words have power and matter. We should challenge old practices that define people solely based on their past criminal cases and foreclose the possibility of positive change and future success. Use of negative labels for individuals who are prosecuted or incarcerated is common in the legal profession, publications, and in American culture. People-centric language avoids the promotion of stereotypes, racial bias, and barriers to opportunity that are especially harmful to Black and Latinx communities already disproportionately affected by the criminal legal system and mass incarceration.3

Pauline Quirion is the director of the CORI & Re-entry Project at Greater Boston Legal Services. She previously served as co-chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association Criminal Justice Reform Working Group and is a member of the Criminal Justice Section Council.

1 See “Council of State Governments staff, Reporting and Criminal Records: Three Tips for Journalists,” Clean Slate Clearinghouse (Oct. 2, 2018), https://cleanslateclearinghouse.org/news/reporting-and-criminal-records-three-tips-for-journalists/.

2 Ruben Castenda, “Is Calling Someone Addicted to Drugs or Alcohol a Substance ‘Abuser’ Harmful? The Language of Addiction and Recovery is Evolving,” U.S. News and World Report (June 12, 2017), https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2017-06-12/is-calling-someone-addicted-to-drugs-or-alcohol-a-substance-abuser-harmful.

3 See Elizabeth Tsai Bishop, et al., Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School, “Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System,” A Report by the Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School, 1-4 (September 2020), http://cjpp.law.harvard.edu/publications/racial-disparities-in-the-massachusetts-criminal-system.