The Language of Engagement on Criminal Justice Reform

by Administrator

By Roy Waterman, Criminal Justice Project Manager

I am delighted to begin this new role as JCPA’s Project Manager on Criminal Justice Reform. I look forward to working with JCRCs, Federations and national organizations in developing their criminal justice work and engagement with people of color.

You may be aware of the many flaws in our current criminal justice system. Our quest to dismantle and recreate our criminal justice system begins with the language we use when we describe those who have broken the norms of society. The language we have grown accustomed to using can be dehumanizing to formerly incarcerated people, and generates a social mindset lacking in empathy. We can and must do better if we are to build support for changing the system.

Language helps define the narrative and the stories of people who are impacted by the system help dictate what the narrative is as framed in the language “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language.” Some of the terms that we hear in the public discussion can be derogatory: Con, Inmate, Ex-Con, Felon, Offender, Crook, Monster and Predator. These terms are profoundly de-humanizing and generate fear and separation. Terms that put people first: People incarcerated, People who are formerly incarcerated, People on parole, People who committed a crime. You notice the common theme here?

In addition to using humanizing language, we need to hear from the human beings in the system. Effective story telling can generate empathy and help people realize what they have in common with one another. When people are intercepted by the current Criminal Justice System they are stripped of their humanity and dignity. They cease to be individuals. When we hear the stories of these people and collateral impact and consequence of their incarceration, it can be very powerful, compelling, sad and heartbreaking. The stories told by formerly incarcerated people can chip away at the prejudices and stigmas. They are people just like we are, with dreams and aspirations.

In other words, to best aide in the fight against mass incarceration, we first have to engage those who are directly impacted by the system. Show them their opinion matters and is valued. In so doing, we will see their humanity, hear their stories, and learn how we can change a system that hurts those directly impacted and, by extension, all of us.

How can you gain access to their stories? I am here to help!

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