Language Counts

From the Sentencing Law & Policy Blog

The Marshall Project unveils “The Language Project” to explore words used to describe people in the justice system

As a lawyer who thinks precise language and legal terminology is always important, and as a blogger who often hopes to avoid clumsy locutions and sometimes parrots and reprints journalistic word conventions, I am always interested in debates over the array of words we use in describing the criminal justice system and the people connected to it.  These debates are heating up as interest in criminal justice reform heats up.  Indeed, as some readers surely know, even the term “criminal justice system” is a matter of debate; many now speak of the “criminal legal system” in an effort to undercut any suggestion that the current system helps to achieve “justice.”

Against this backdrop, I am quite intrigued to see that The Marshall Project has unveiled today “The Language Project,” which it sets up this way:

Reporters and editors have long believed that terms such as “inmate,” “felon” and “offender” are clear, succinct and neutral.  But a vocal segment of people affected by the criminal justice system argue that these words — and any other words that define human beings by their crimes and punishments — are dehumanizing.

The Marshall Project occupies a unique space in criminal justice reporting.  We are not an advocacy organization, but we are committed to sustaining a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.  As a result, fellow journalists often ask us about our style and standards around the language of criminal justice, and activists we meet frequently confront us about our usage of words such as “inmate.”

The Marshall Project began addressing this issue in 2015, our second year of existence, but we did not make a decision to change our style guide.  Since then, through our deepening engagement with formerly and currently incarcerated people, we have realized the urgency of examining and articulating the language we use.

The Language Project serves three purposes.  First, through a series of powerful pieces by and about people with intimate experience with incarceration, we show the human impact of the words we choose.  Second, our guide, “What Words We Use — and Avoid — When Covering People and Incarceration,” makes public our decision to avoid labels such as “inmate,” in favor of language that follows the logic of “person-first” language.  Third, we provide alternatives to the labels.

At its heart, journalism is a discipline of clarity. The Language Project is our attempt to set the record straight.

Here are links to the first set of pieces in this notable new “Project”:

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