- The way we talk about the criminal justice system and offenders is broken.
- The speech stigmatizes and harms ex-offenders who are trying to rebuild their lives.
- Reforming the criminal justice system requires a change in coverage of crime and a new way to talk about justice.
- Ashish Prashar is the Senior Director of Global Communications for Publicis Sapient, Board Member of New York-based Exodus Transitional Community and Getting Out and Staying Out, and Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The US is obsessed with crime. News outlets devote roughly 50% of their coverage to crime, while true crime podcasts have become a worldwide phenomenon.
Although this obsession can seem harmless and even entertaining, it’s dangerous and it has a real-world impact on those who have gone through the criminal justice system.
The way we talk about offenders
The coverage of crime distorts and exaggerates reality. The selection of news stories, and the sensationalism of certain crimes vilifies people who commit those crimes. The real-world impact of this distortion is fully explained in a 2014 study from University of Nottingham researchers Deborah Drake and Andrew Henley.
The study found that coverage of crime is often associated with only one policy option – harsher punishments for offenders – even though there is now significant evidence that harsher sentences do little to reduce crime.
Language shapes perceptions of and attitudes toward individuals and it is no more distorted than when the media talks about offenders. Research has shown that typical coverage of crime appeals to people who already tend to favor punitive approaches, or to people who favor clear storylines with ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.
The creation of false narratives around criminal justice dates back decades. A famous example is the ‘Central Park Five’ – or the Exonerated Five.
Wrongly convicted for the 1989 assault and rape of a female jogger in Central Park, five black and Latino children each served between five and 15 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. A variety of publications at the time helped drive their false convictions by rarely describing the perpetrators as “alleged,” choosing to say they are “wilding” and comparing them instead to a “Wolf Pack.”
More recently the moral panic, fear mongering and outright propaganda around New York’s Bail Reform had echoes of the crack era and the Central Park Jogger Case, with broadcasters outlets using headlines like “Simply let the bad guys go?”, which reinforced the negative stereotype of those accused of a crime and in turn helped a racist effort to amend the law.
Language like this follows ex-offenders wherever they go — with portions of the media delighting in reminding everyone that, once upon a time, this person was a criminal. This creates another problem: Crimes aren’t always clear cut and offenders who break the law aren’t always un-redeemable. People have the potential to rehabilitate themselves and become outstanding citizens with the right support. I know this to be true. At 17, I went to prison and my life changed forever.
My experience has taught me that we need to fundamentally change the way we talk about the criminal justice system. We all share in building a just (or unjust) society, and each of us individually and in our collective role — reporter, editor, pundit, citizen — need to take that responsibility seriously. How we describe each other either furthers our understanding and empathy, or furthers othering and dehumanization.
We should allow space for a different view on what or who someone might have actually been and do meaningful work to create empathy for communities with different needs because they’re often left out of traditional ladders of success.
From replacing words like “convict” or “criminal” with phrases like “formerly incarcerated person” or “person who served time,” to replacing “gang” with “friends” or “schoolmates” when a young person gets tangled up in trouble, this helps us accurately represent the relationships at play, remember our capacity for restorative work, and invites true justice. Personhood is not dependent on actions — a person is always a person regardless of being accused of or having committed a crime, and should be treated as such.
The path to prison
Growing up in a middle-class family in London, my first experience of conflict was my parents’ divorce. My mom left, taking my sister and the idea of our “happy family”with her. My dad, who wasn’t emotionally available to begin with quickly went missing in action. And I went looking for something to replace the hole my parents left behind.
I discovered that kinship in a group of friends who had also lost people. Together, we were adventurers. As our exploits grew more daring, we grew closer. The more audacious the exploit, the tighter we became — until the day we got caught. Ours was not a petty crime—for a bunch of teenagers, it was pretty sophisticated. We stole £20,000 worth of goods from a British department store after we worked out how to program credit card details into our Blockbuster cards.
The reality inside
I was sentenced to a year at a young offender institute in the UK. The process of dehumanization starts in the courtroom — the judge referred to me and my friends as a “criminal gang,” and my sentencing reflected his perception. In prison the guards take your personal belongings and issue you jeans, a shirt, a faded blue sweatshirt, and a clunky pair of black shoes. This is the start of a process designed not to rehabilitate you, but to crush you.
The boys at the prison were ritually humiliated and beaten up. The older kids set the younger kids on one another, and the correctional officers would tear into us with racist abuse, trying to goad a reaction. I was even put in solitary confinement for a short stint for my own protection. The same solitary confinement referred to as the ‘hot box’, the same solitary confinement where more young people lose themselves or commit suicide.
Making it outside
The weight of what happened inside prison pales in comparison to what comes after: the lifelong stigma attached to having to tick the “YES” box on every employment application that asks: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
I’ve been fortunate – my aunt fought the system to give me a quality education, and a national newspaper editor-in-chief gave me a chance at a job (He thought that if I was wily enough to pull off that scheme I might be wily enough to be a tabloid news reporter).
Thanks to their support, I was able to build a career in British and US politics working for former Prime Ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair, and current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I also had the privilege of working for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. This experience makes it easy for employers looking at my resume to overlook my past. Many are not so lucky.
But we shouldn’t be dependent on luck and in fact, luck didn’t get me to where I am today. It was people. People who chose to see me not just an ex-con and who saw that we were children, not gang members. These choices are in front of all of us — are we going to use language that reduces people to a one-dimensional category? Or are we going to fight to see better and act with love and generosity?
For most people getting out of prison is impossible, even when you are set free. Prison follows you and the stigma creates insurmountable barriers leaving most without access to a job that pays a living wage, the opportunity to build a career, or all the other basics, like housing, healthcare, and community participation.
Reducing mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our time, and we have a collective responsibility to advocate for people who are actively disenfranchised.
This work can take many forms, from shutting down prisons, eliminating cash bonds, reducing police brutality, or changing draconian measures such as the three-strike rule.
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But even before making the necessary changes to our legal system we can change the language we use. When we talk about people who come into contact with the criminal justice system and refer to them as “offenders,” “inmates,” or “convicts,” we participate in their dehumanization.
Such labeling not only stops ex-offenders getting jobs, it also ascribes to them a scarlet letter long after they’ve served their time, and prevents them from being seen for who they are: sons, sisters, parents, and community members.
The people I went to prison with could have become executives, entrepreneurs, or elected officials if only the story told around their lives was honest or if someone had recognized their spark and nurtured it. The responsibility is with us to change the narrative by putting people before records. A prison sentence is tough. It shouldn’t be a life sentence of public shame and restricted opportunity.
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