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California

No more ‘convicts’ or ‘felons’ if San Francisco passes criminal justice language proposal

Jail
A proposal from San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors would strip pejorative language from anyone with a criminal record.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors wants to sanitize language in the criminal justice system.

In a proposal to the city and county of San Francisco, words like “felon,” “offender,”“convict” and “parolee” would be swapped for what’s described as people-first language — phrases that strip any objectification or pejorative descriptions for more neutral and positive descriptors.

Some examples include changing “felon” and “offender” to “returning resident” or “formerly incarcerated person.” A “parolee” could be described as a “person under supervision.” “Convict” could be referred to as a “currently incarcerated person,” while a “juvenile offender” or “delinquent” would be described as a “young person impacted by the justice system.”

The board noted that about 1 in every 5 Californians has a criminal record and the language that often accompanies those records can dehumanize and devalue the individual.

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“Language shapes the ideas, perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and actions of individuals, societies and governments,” the proposal states. “People-first language places the individual before the criminal record by using neutral, objective, and non-pejorative language.”

The nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, passed last month in a near-unanimous vote. One supervisor was absent.

The San Francisco County district attorney’s Sentencing Commission, the Bay Area’s Reentry Council and San Francisco’s Youth Commission — a group of 17 young people ages 12 to 23 — passed resolutions supporting the changed language.

Mayor London Breed has not signed the proposal. Breed does not implement policies based on nonbinding resolutions.

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“That proposal was a non-binding urging resolution, and as a practice the mayor does not sign any resolutions of that kind. She is always happy to work with the board on issues around equity and criminal justice reform,” said spokesperson Andy Lynch.

The proposal comes on the heels of Berkeley city leaders’ passage of an ordinance to replace more than two dozen terms with gender-neutral words. The City Council voted in July to replace “manhole” with “maintenance hole,” “craftsmen” with “artisans” and to stop identifying firefighters and police officers by gender.


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