To the editor: As someone who works with victims of crime, I believe that the use of person-first language is absolutely essential. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors calling for the adoption of language guidelines in the city’s justice system is a step in the right direction.
Language plays a critical role in the criminal justice system, especially when working with people who are incarcerated and people who have experienced trauma. For example, the system may label an individual as either an “offender” or a “victim,” but this is a false dichotomy. More often than not, an individual who commits an illegal act will also have experienced past trauma, and using person-first language humanizes and empowers that individual.
Less interchangeable language such as “individuals with trauma histories,” “individuals who have been criminally charged” or “people who have survived a crime” is more accurate. As the proposal states, “people-first language places the individual before the criminal record by using neutral, objective, and non-pejorative language.”
Criminal justice reform is best implemented when programs and policies are authentic and centered on the community it is aiming to serve. It’s time we use language that most accurately and respectfully represents our communities.
Mai Fernandez, Arlington, Va.
The writer is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.