“Criminal” is the Wrong Word

Criminal justice reform begins with reforming our language surrounding crime.

More and more people are beginning to realize that there are problems with the modern American prison system. Today, the United States of America represents 5% of the world’s population, but 22% of the world’s incarcerated population is in an American prison or jail. Black people are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than white people.[1] Clearly, America’s modern prison system needs to be reformed, and there are structural and institutionalized inequities that must be addressed.

A third area of inequity can be found in our language. The words we use to describe people inadvertently affect how we treat them. For instance, your opinion and attitude towards “prisoner 24601” is probably different from those towards Jean Val Jean, the prisoner’s name. Language is the articulation of our perceptions and beliefs, and by reforming our language we reform the ideas and thoughts that lead to the formation of institutions and structures. In particular, I believe that there needs to be reformation with regards to the way we use the word “criminal” to identify people. Furthermore, criminal justice reform should be an important issue for Christians because is it an opportunity to show societal outcasts that they are redeemable and that they have intrinsic worth.

Before we think about how language reform can take place, we should try to understand how we arrived at our current state of mass incarceration. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, shows how the war on drugs is one of the main contributors to the phenomenon of mass incarceration.[2] In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, a new narrative emerged that demonized drugs and condemned drug users. Drugs were seen as a deadly threat to communities, and Congress believed that the solution was to enact stricter laws and harsher sentences for those who use and distribute drugs. One result of these policy decisions is that the war on drugs has disproportionately affected persons of color, which continues to be the case. This is due to the pieces of legislation such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, which established a 100:1 powder to crack cocaine ratio. These laws made it so that a person caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine received the same minimum sentence as a person caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. At the time these laws were passed the abuse of crack cocaine was increasing. Users of crack cocaine were predominantly located in urban areas, such that this legislation disproportionately affected minorities concentrated in urban areas. Powder cocaine users were less likely to be minorities in urban areas. In 2010 President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the powder to crack ratio to 18:1.3 However, this legislative change did not erase the effects of the war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration.

Since mass incarceration disproportionately affects blacks and other persons of color, the idea of “criminal” becomes associated with blacks as well. This is shown in Jennifer Eberhart’s study, “Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing.”[4] The study conducted an experiment in which participants were exposed to black faces, white faces, and low-quality images of crime-relevant objects to see who was more likely to be associated with the object. Eberhardt concluded that a bidirectional relationship exists between crime and blackness and blackness and crime.[5] This means that when people think of crime they think of blackness; but it also means that when people think of blackness they think of crime.

This is problematic for obvious reasons; however, I would like to offer a reason perhaps you have not considered. The “Seeing Black” study should be disturbing to us because it attributes an inherent criminality to a people group and the individuals within that group. This breeds division–it causes society to see certain people groups as “others.” I believe this–seeing a people group as an “other”–is the foundation for why it is so easy to be react to crime with stricter sentences.

In considering individual persons, rather than people groups, the results of the “Seeing Black” study are just as sad. It is a mere convenience of the English language to identify someone as “criminal” instead of “a person who has committed a crime.” The adjective, however, subtly transforms our characterization of that person. Implicit in the word “criminal” is an underlying philosophy that dictates that crime is an individual choice deviant from the norm, which is a moral failure that requires a swift, certain, and severe response.[6] It is based on the underlying assumptions we take for granted that our characterization of a “criminal” is different from that of “a person who has committed a crime.”

Committing a crime does not have the final say for who you are. “Criminals” are certainly not born. Crime is not a predisposed condition. When we label or classify people as criminals, they are seen as deviants who are no longer normal members of a community. This causes us to separate them from society, and this separation moves beyond a jail or prison sentence. To demonstrate this separation, I will give the example of the “black criminal” with some aspects of history and the “Seeing Black” study.

In the Jim Crow era, southern lawmakers passed laws that loosely defined crimes, like grand larceny, which resulted in the arrests of more black people, especially black men. Simultaneously there existed a narrative that black people, mainly black men, were dangerous because they posed a threat to the pure, white southern belle. This narrative, coupled with the illusion of black men committing excessive crime, led people to associate black people with crime, even believing that black people are predisposed to commit crimes. Variations of this belief still exist today. If the silent narrative of our time is that blackness is an indication of crime, this overgeneralization of an entire population is attributing the action of committing a crime to the very essence of persons.

The punishment for a crime is separation from society, and I believe that it should be. It becomes dangerous, however, when that separation becomes semi-permanent through reinforcement. This reinforcement happens in a number of ways. There is the initial separation that happens when a person who has committed a crime is seen as a criminal. This separation, especially when associated with the marker of blackness, can be for life. There is also the separation that hinders “criminals” from reentry into society. For example, the Ban the Box campaign seeks to remove the box from job applications that asks about an individual’s criminal record. The hope of Ban the Box is that a criminal record would not exclude anyone from a fair chance at a job, and that employers would evaluate candidates based on their qualifications, not the mistakes they have made in the past. This is just one example of the collateral consequences of an interaction with the criminal justice system. An interaction with the criminal justice system, such as an arrest, can make it increasingly difficult for a person to find a job, receive financial aid, receive state benefits (SNAP, TANF, etc.), buy a house with a mortgage, and vote in elections, among other things.

The collateral consequences of committing a crime or serving time in prison are long lasting because we have not truly forgiven or accepted a person’s incarceration as penance. Theoretically speaking, committing a crime is punishable, but when the punishment is over, the person should return to society. Our system communicates that even though you may have served time for your mistakes, your sentence was not good enough for forgiveness. We continue to punish crime beyond the walls of prison when we hold a person’s actions over their head continually, such that they are reminded of their moral failure every time they are rejected from a loan application, every time a potential employer rejects their job applications, and every election in which they may not vote. By virtue of attributing crime to a person’s identity, we are declaring that they are a criminal forever and cannot be changed. It means that when we see a criminal, we always see the threat of crime and the propensity to commit crime. This marks people as an “other,” as separate from society and society’s norms, forever.

As a Christian observing mass incarceration and seeing movements for reform emerging, I see an incredible opportunity to communicate God’s love to a population of people living in exile. To those incarcerated or living with the collateral consequences of a previous sentence, we have a chance to not only communicate but also actively show to them that they are valued and loved by God. One form of affirming God’s love for persons who have committed crimes is advocating for criminal justice reform that addresses the underlying assumption that a “criminal” is a criminal forever. God leaves no man out of his redemptive plan; neither should we exclude our brothers and sisters though they may have made serious mistakes throughout their lives. The reformation of our language about crime is an important piece of that.

The initial battle for reform is a battle of ideas and thoughts. Much of what makes meaningful reform so difficult is the potent fear of crime and its effects on families and communities. These concerns and fears are legitimate, but they do not excuse overgeneralizing entire people groups or protecting your community at the expense of another. Communities affected by crime are affected by the collateral consequences just as much as the individual suffering. Reforming our language to reflect the truth that a person’s identity is not composed of a series of actions is an important first step. No person should be defined by the worst thing that they have done. Defining a person by a series of their actions is lying to them and about them. Thus, the first step to meaningful reform of the modern prison system is to realize that a person has intrinsic value and worth before and after they commit a crime.


1 Western, Bruce. Punishment and Inequality in America. (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), 3.

2 Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press, 2010.

3 ”Report on the Impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” United States Sentencing Commission. Accessed May 05, 2016.

4 Eberhardt, Jennifer L., Phillip Atiba Goff, Valerie J. Purdie, and Paul G. Davies. “Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, no. 6 (2004), 876.

5 Ibid.

6 Wilson, James Q. Thinking about Crime. New York, NY: Vintage, 1977.


Emani Pollard is a junior in the ILR School at Cornell University. She leads a Cornell Faith and Action (CFA) Bible study and enjoys drink­ing tea year round.

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