12 thoughts on “The Kids are Leaving Rikers. Is it Really a New Day for Juvenile Justice in NYC?

  1. Kids? Hardly. A juvenile can be a violent criminal as much as an adult. These ‘kids’ are expert at gaming the system. Keep them locked up.

  2. Within this article on more than one occasion I saw the use of the word “inmate.” As we continue to address the issues in our criminal justice system it is important that we recognize how powerful language is. I challenge all writers to use humanizing language and begin to move away from language that defines a person by their offense or situation. I am thankful for this writer for bringing awareness to this issue but I do hope we all continue to be more conscious of the language we use when talking about individuals who are justice involved.

      • There are useful resources out there about the use of humanizing language in journalism (and other places). I like the recent update that the Opportunity Agenda has done on their CJ-reform phrase guide: https://opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/criminal-justice-reform-phrase-guide

        And I think the discussion that Marshall Project put together a few years ago is also quite good. Bill Keller did a pretty good job of grappling with something that is not quite as straightforward as I’d like it to be. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/04/01/inmate-parolee-felon-discuss

        I know “incarcerated person” or “detained person” can feel like a clunky construction, but I also think person-first language has an effect in the world and may help to shift thinking, however slightly, about the people we arrest, detain, and incarcerate. The criminal justice system can be incredibly dehumanizing (for everyone, from law enforcement, corrections officers, and people in prison). Perhaps subtle language choices can indicate that we recognize the dignity and humanity of the people who are in this system on both sides of the bars.

        • Perhaps. It is certainly true that moving from “ex-con” to “ex-offender” and from “illegal alien” to “undocumented immigrant” helped to render the language more neutral.

          However, there is also the chance that we’ll all get caught in an argument about semantics that is a distraction from the real issues, and permits others to dismiss or ignore the case for reform because it seems so detached from reality.

          There is also the possibility that by moving away from traditional terms, we will inadvertently neutralize the language before we have softened the reality — that people will more easily accept a 14-year-old “detained person” than they will a 14-year-old “inmate.” And there’s the issue of whether we’re going to audit all our language through a similar lens. What’s the humanizing version of correction officer, cop, prosecutor?

          In the end, will any title really reflect a person’s full humanity? Journalist, priest, mother, athlete … inmate, patient, victim, witness. They’re each only about identity in a context. Shouldn’t we operate on the assumption that no single term encompasses someone’s full personhood?

          • I do agree that a title will never reflect a person’s full humanity and that softening the language and not the reality could be counterproductive, but I think there’s a special responsibility to reconsider language that is often and regularly used pejoratively. I have heard “inmate” and “convict” used sneeringly and dismissively enough times by people with authority that it is hard to hear them as neutral terms. And sure, people may sneeringly say “cop” or—in our current climate—”journalist,” but it’s just not as loaded. Maybe it’s about who has the power or control or what direction it feels like people are punching when they use these terms.

            I strongly prefer the simplest and most direct language to convey meaning. But as someone who has spent so much time in prisons and jails, it’s hard for me to believe that “inmate” is a term we should be using in Standard American English.

          • Yes, I hear you. At the very least it’s important to distinguish between those serving sentences and those detained prior to adjudication, given the unique problems with pre-trial detention and the disproportionate share of local jail population that consists of pre-trial detainees. Although I suppose there’s a danger there, too, of implying that the conditions in which the other people in jail–those serving sentences–are productive and appropriate.

            Do you feel “prisoner” is quite as loaded as inmate, convict, etc.? To me, that feels more human, but is simple and real. And at least in recent usage it seems to have been used as often as a term of sympathy/concern as one of disdain. And it’s a term that’s broadly recognized and can’t be dismissed as overly PC, as some other alternatives might be.

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  4. I totally agree about the need for appropriate and careful language for people who have been arrested/detained awaiting disposition. And I would never want to get so into the weeds on language that we take our eye off the work itself.

    I do think “prisoner” is less loaded than “inmate,” but I don’t think there’s consensus around that, and it’s not a term that we use at Osborne. “People who are X” is clunky, I realize (partly because I try to write around that construction), and I agree can be dismissed as overly PC, but I do think there are some instances in a longer piece of writing where simply using “person”/”people”/or the person’s name can be effective without being unclear.

    Anyway, thank you for having this conversation about it. And I always appreciate your coverage of these issues.

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