City Pledges to Change Criminal Justice System Language

Supervisors voted Tuesday to weed out words like “felon,” “criminal,” and “addict” from official documents, instead choosing language that puts people first and their actions second.

“How would you like to be introduced as a ‘liar,’ prior to your name? That’s what we do every day when we talk about people as felons, convicts, juveniles … using all those words means something,” says Geoffrea Morris, who works as a planner at the city’s Adult Probation Department’s Reentry Division. “It’s easy to say ‘offender,’ but it’s much easier on the self-esteem of people to say ‘previously incarcerated person’ or ‘person who has committed a crime.’ ”

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to approve a fairly unusual resolution, which requests that city government be more intentional with language choices when writing legislation, press releases, or briefs that discuss people who have spent time in the criminal justice system. Terms like addict, criminal, felon, prisoner, or juvenile delinquents tend to leave little room for humanization. Instead, it labels people as others, implying they are worth less than their peers — and it can even damage rehabilitation.

“Person-first” seeks to reverse that, and the trend is catching on. Students of public health are taught to lead with the noun, saying “a child with autism spectrum disorder” for example, instead of an “autistic child.” In San Francisco, you’ll commonly hear advocates referring to “unhoused people,” “people experiencing homelessness” or “people with substance use issues.” Despite this progress, there has never been a commitment from City Hall to employee person-first language, until now.

“The Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco urges all agencies and departments, both executive and judiciary, to adopt people-first language with respect to people with criminal records in all its official written, voice, audiovisual, and signed communications,” the resolution reads, “and urges adoption and utilization of people-first language in all legislation, co-sponsorship memos, reports, policies, and other documents.”

Eric Henderson, a criminal-justice reform advocate who sits on the Reentry Council and the District Attorney’s Sentencing Commission, drafted the resolution, and Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer introduced it to the Board.

“The origin for this resolution really came from my work on the state level,” Henderson tells SF Weekly. “We were distributing some grant funds, and written into the legislation were words like ‘convict,’ ‘felon,’ ‘offender,’ ‘parolee.’ Every time someone would say that I would cringe. My family has a direct connection to the criminal justice system, and I don’t refer to my friends or family in those ways … I feel like I have to code-switch every time I go into the legislature because of the way the analyses are written.”

Henderson and Fewer both cited Eddie Ellis — a criminal-justice-reform activist who died in 2014 — as an inspiration for pushing this resolution forward. Years ago Ellis penned a powerful letter on human-first language that is still referenced today, stating that “We are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE. People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions.

“We think that, by insisting on being called ‘people,’ we reaffirm our right to be recognized as human beings — not animals, inmates, prisoners, or offenders,” Ellis added. “We also firmly believe that if we cannot persuade you to refer to us and to think of us as people then all our other efforts at reform and change are seriously compromised.”

His message is catching on.

“The [San Francisco] Probation Department calls folks clients, they don’t call them probationers,” Henderson says.

While the practice isn’t fully in play citywide, the intention appears to be — at least among those in City Hall. By the time the resolution hit the floor it had seven supervisors signed on as co-sponsors, and it flew through the vote with unanimous support.

“While changing the way we speak about justice-involved individuals is far from a cure-all for the ills of our justice system, it is a solid step in the right direction,” Fewer says.

The passing of a resolution is in itself a victory, it’s now that the real work begins.

“The Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco recognizes that some agencies, including but not limited to Adult Probation, Juvenile Probation, the Police Department, the District Attorney, and the Sheriff, will need training and ongoing support to implement this shift in culture,” the resolution states. “Where possible, the City and County of San Francisco should provide adequate support to those agencies.”

Henderson isn’t glossing over this fact.

“Some of this change is going to be slow,” he says. But, he’s looking at ways to weave training about the language use into already-existing programs, like the implicit bias workshops police officers are required to complete.

And where San Francisco leads, others follow. “I’m hoping we can use this to create momentum across the state,” Henderson says. “I’m going to take this over to Alameda County next.”

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