In our experience with working with those impacted by the legal system, we have been reminded of, and told that many of the terms used to describe people who have been formerly incarcerated are stigmatizing and dehumanizing. Descriptors like “felon,” “inmate,” and “offender” are far from neutral, objective words. They actually bias readers against system-impacted people and changes in the legal system, perpetuate dangerous stereotypes of system-impacted people and clouds a reader’s ability to truthfully assess necessary critiques of the system.

The language used by the media has a profound impact on mass incarceration and the way the public responds to it (for example, the proliferation of the superpredator myth). Below are some frameworks we use when talking about the legal system and people in it, and we invite you to use them as well. 


  • Use person first language and narrative constructions
    To respect people’s humanity and counter bias, use “person-first” language. This means referring to the individual first, and their trait, condition or status second. This allows readers to fully acknowledge the value of someone’s personhood, instead of defining them by the circumstances they may be in. Language is always evolving and opinions on vocabulary used to discuss the justice system may range, but person-first language offers a helpful foundational framework.
  • Avoid image sourcing that discriminates or perpetuates harmful stereotypes
    Media bias reflects in images, too. Too often, when a young white person is accused of a crime, their photos is a headshot or a school picture. When a young Black or brown person is accused of a crime, outlets opt to use mugshots or social media photos taken out of context.  This feeds fear-mongering about crime, and perpetuates racist beliefs about Black and brown people.
  • We don’t participate in the narrative binary of “violent/nonviolent crime, because the definition of violent crime according to the law can be arbitrary. As such, we avoid using phrases like “violent offender,” “drug offender” or “violent crime.” Often, we don’t need to specify the nature of the crime a person was convicted of, and if we do need to for whatever reason, we should use phrases like “person convicted of drug violation.”

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