The Durham County Board of Commissioners this week adopted a resolution that urges the county’s courts and judiciary along with all other local government offices and departments as well as the community at-large to end the practice of describing a person either with a criminal record or awaiting trial in county jail as a “prisoner,” “convict,” “inmate,” or “felon.”

The board’s resolution also “urges adoption and utilization of people-first language in all legislation, co-sponsorship memos, reports, policies, and other documents.”

Commissioners also agreed to take the next step of sharing with county offices and the public alternative terms to describe people who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

What exactly is “people-first language?”

Commissioners did not go into specifics, but language like “individual, person, woman or woman with prior or current criminal justice system involvement” is encouraged, according to The Fortune Society, a national nonprofit that promotes successful reentry from incarceration.  

Similarly, instead of describing a person as a “parolee,” “probationer” or  “detainee,” Fortune’s website suggests using “person on parole,” “person on probation,” or “person in detention.”

The county’s resolution adopted Monday during their regularly scheduled meeting states that the current language “undermines, devalues, dehumanizes, demoralizes and dishonors the humanity of that individual.”

The resolution noted that while nearly 80 percent of people being held at Durham County Detention Center are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of the crime, they are nonetheless described with language that “emphasizes or prioritizes a criminal record over the individual.”

The resolution also notes that people with criminal records already “endure intense legal and social sanctioning, including segregation, harassment, and harm.” 

Even people who have been formerly involved with the justice system and are now responsible members of our communities, schools, workplaces, and places of worship can be hindered by language that “shapes the ideas, perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals, societies, and governments,” according to the resolution.

Moreover, with a criminal justice system in which Black and brown people are disproportionately represented, the current language “only [serves] to obstruct and separate people from society and make the institutionalization of racism and supremacy appear normal.”

Some point to the media as one of the biggest offenders of the loaded language.

“The vast majority of news outlets continue to use the dehumanizing labels, even when journalists aim to shine a light on injustice or expose abuses of power, they legitimize the failing criminal justice system when they use these harmful terms to describe the subjects of their stories,” according to a report published last year by People First, an advocacy network for people with disabilities.

“When audiences read and hear words like ‘felon’ and ‘inmate,’ they are more afraid of, less open to, less curious about, and less supportive of people with experiences like mine and the opportunities that would make me most safe and free,” Norris Henderson, the founder and executive director of Voice of the Experienced and Voters Organized to Educate, said in the report.

The 47-page report also noted “that while some progress has been made, dehumanizing labels are still widely used by leading newspapers, and the use of these terms biases readers against directly impacted people and criminal justice reform.”

The report further noted that in 2016, “President Barack Obama’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) circulated a memo stating that it would no longer use ‘offender’ or ‘felon’ and later that year the departments of correction in Pennsylvania and Washington State eliminated the use of the word ‘offender’ in their public documents.” 

Predictably, the OJP guidance was later revoked by the Trump administration, “reinforcing the cultural power of these words and the fragility of administrative changes,” according to the People First report.  

The resolution adopted by Durham commissioners noted the real-life consequences of the loaded terms becoming the basis for “inaccurate information, unfounded assumptions, generalizations, and other negative predispositions associated with justice-involved individuals.” 

The language, according to the board’s resolution, creates “societal stigmas, attitudinal barriers, and continued negative stereotypes that affect access to employment, housing, healthcare, professional licensing, travel, support services, and other integral aspects of community life.” 

The one-page resolution was read into the record by commissioner Nida Allam, who spearheaded the crafting of the document with members of the county’s criminal justice advisory committee.

Ben Hass, the director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, praised the resolution and the “rich, diverse fabric of people” working throughout the city to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people back into mainstream society.

“They are the folks the resolution seeks to uplift with housing, employment, health and social services [with] every kind of tangible and intangible support,” Hass said during the in-person meeting.

Hass added that the resolution at once speaks to a truth beyond the labels “and the sadder truth of what it’s trying to combat.” 

He shared a quote from the late South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu: “Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.”

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