The language we use to describe systems of oppression greatly shapes our understanding of these systems and the people and communities impacted by them. This is especially true when it comes to the criminal legal system and our understanding of justice, or the lack thereof. Advocates around the country are engaging in conversation around the language of our work and encouraging language changes that reflect the true nature of systemic oppression and highlight individuals through person-centered language.
The phrase “criminal justice” holds heavy and complicated connotations. “Criminal justice system” implies a system that metes out justice for all, which we know to be untrue of the American criminal legal system. “Criminal legal system” offers more accurate phrasing, and Empower Missouri is shifting our language to reflect this. Check out articles from the Vera Institute and the Pulitzer Center for further discussion on this language shift.
“Criminal” presents another value-laden word, one that defines individuals by a single fact and creates a second class of citizens. Other problematic and outdated words used in reference to individuals impacted by the criminal legal system include offender, convict, felon, and inmate. We strive to use language and phrasing that highlights the individual, such as “person on parole” or “person incarcerated at X facility.” Find more reading on person-centered language from the Marshall Project and Prism.
Bearing these important considerations in mind, the Criminal Justice Coalition had a series of discussions over the summer and held a vote to consider changing the coalition’s name in order to better represent our vision and work. We are excited to share that we are now the Community Justice Coalition. Our new name reflects our commitment to advocating for justice for all Missourians and a future without mass incarceration.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss, please contact Gwen at [email protected].
This is great news. Language matters! Shifting the narrative is one of the three faces of power in the organizing that we do at Metropolitan Congregations United, and Empower Missouri is modeling that here.