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It’s Time to Rethink How We Talk About Crime

By Beatrice Sexton



The use of pejorative language pervades the discussion of crime. The tabloids are littered with headlines such as “10% of foreign criminals can sneak into the UK”[1], “Zayn Malik’s sister’s wedding to ex-convict”[2] and “Criminals may not be brought to justice as quickly under a no-deal Brexit”[3]. But it’s not just in the papers that terms such as “law-breakers”, “felons” and “delinquents” are liberally used. Rather, they litter ordinary discussions about crime, current affairs and the justice system. This article contends that the use of such terms is both unproductive and detrimental. Pejorative language restricts our ability to truly understand, and to empathize (where appropriate), with people who have committed crimes. In turn, the internalization of the “othering” effect of such terminology hampers the reintegration of former offenders into society.


One problem with terms such as “criminal” and “delinquent”, is that they imply that the person to whom they refer has a disposition to offend, suggesting intrinsic criminality as opposed to the objective fact of having committed a crime. As Jonathon Simon writes, “when we move from describing conduct as ‘criminal’ to speaking of a person as a ‘criminal’, we are … assuming a sovereign character trait that can be traced into the subject's developmental past, and used to predict their future behaviour”[4].


The inappropriateness of this exercise is evident when one considers just how widespread the commission of crime truly is in modern society. There are few people who can honestly declare that they have never broken the law, for example by downloading pirated content from the internet, or perhaps committing a minor breach of the recent coronavirus regulations. Against this backdrop, the injustice of labelling and “othering” as criminals those who are found guilty of an offence in a court of law becomes particularly clear.


The use of such epithets also obscures and ignores the complex lives and challenges faced by many people who have committed a crime. As noted by Kimberley Brownlee, “relative to the general population, people who are sentenced to imprisonment are far more likely to have witnessed domestic violence as children, been abused or neglected themselves, had an absent parent, been taken into care, expelled from school, have no school qualifications, have learning difficulties, mental health issues or cognitive disabilities, and used Class A drugs”.[5] To rely on terms such as “criminal” and “offender” is to pass over engagement with, and attempts to remedy, significant and damaging social issues, in favour of unnuanced ostracism.


Moreover, where the disclosure of information about someone who has been convicted of a criminal offence is required, for example in discussing their suitability for a position of employment which involves contact with vulnerable persons, this can be done without suggesting that the offence encapsulates the person’s whole identity. For example, in place of stating that “X is a criminal”, one could say that “X has previously been convicted for assault”. The latter formulation has the additional advantage of greater accuracy and precision, ensuring that those who have committed relatively “minor” crimes are not unnecessarily tarred with the same brush as more violent, organized criminals.


The use of pejorative labels such as “criminal” is not only unjust, but unhelpful and dangerous, as it hinders the social reintegration of people who have formerly been incarcerated. Amanda Breen reports that “labelling and the type of identity construction that it fosters is central to the reintegration process”.[6] If former offenders are labelled and stereotyped, they “may internalize the label, thus behaving in ways that confirm the [associated] stereotypes”.[7]


It might be argued that such labelling itself performs a useful function, in justly punishing wrongdoers by the social technique of stigmatisation. However, it must be remembered that the purpose of the justice system is to ensure that a person’s criminal conduct has been met with an appropriate, proportionate response, such as a period of imprisonment. In this way, social stigmatisation performs no further, useful purpose. If the justice system has failed to exert sufficient punishment, it is the system itself that should change (for example, by means of stricter sentencing guidelines), as opposed to its being supplemented by an almost primal form of social retribution.


The central paradox can be summarised thus: “by reducing people to their crimes, we see them as offenders and nothing else, and we force them to see themselves that way. Consequently, we might set up the exact conditions for them to become the kind of person who offends”.[8] In this way, the use of terms such as “criminal” can ultimately create the very situation (criminality, as opposed to the fact of having committed a crime) wrongly assumed to exist in the first place, and so perpetuate a vicious cycle of social exclusion and ostracism.[9]


The gravity of the issue is particularly clear when considered in the context of young people’s early interactions with the justice system. As a result of the increasing use of early-preventative intervention as a strategy intended to reduce crime, “young people are labelled and stigmatised … continually viewed in a negative light; and are unable to overcome the negative ‘outsider’ label attached to them”.[10] In this way, “young people feel less inclined to partake in law-abiding behaviour having been categorised, and embrace the concept of an ‘outsider’”.[11]


This injustice is compounded by the reality that “young people from deprived communities are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system for relatively minor offences”.[12] Furthermore, people are often more likely to label those from minority communities by their criminal convictions. In this way, epithets such as “criminal” are utilised to compound stereotypes and express preconceived prejudices in a matter naïvely considered to be “justified”. Ultimately, this pre-emptive criminalisation of (particularly vulnerable) young people can “lead into a cycle of criminal behaviour and a dearth of opportunity later in life”.[13]


As such, whilst linguistic choices in conversations about crime and criminal justice might be dismissed by some as a relatively inconsequential issue, or as a justified punishment for engaging in criminal behaviour, the reality is that the use of terms such as “criminal” and “convict” is dehumanizing and suggests insufficient empathy. By reducing human beings to a label, we suggest the truth and validly of that designation to not only wider society, but also that person themselves. The consequences of this process in increasing the likelihood of further criminal behaviour, and hindering social reintegration, demonstrates the need for a careful reconsideration of how we talk about crime.

[1] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9124135/10-foreign-criminals-sneak-UK-fall-number-wanted-notices-EU.html [2] https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/13478780/zayn-malik-sister-wedding-convict-broken-police/ [3] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9064011/Criminals-not-brought-justice-quickly-no-deal-Brexit.html [4] https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/cjm/article/debating…-bad-language-criminal-justice [5] https://theweek.com/articles/738996/why-should-stop-calling-people-who-commit-crimes-criminals [6] https://ir.library.dc-uoit.ca/bitstream/10155/168/1/Breen_Amanda.pdf [7] Ibid [8] https://theweek.com/articles/738996/why-should-stop-calling-people-who-commit-crimes-criminals [9] https://theweek.com/articles/738996/why-should-stop-calling-people-who-commit-crimes-criminals [10] https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/sites/crimeandjustice.org.uk/files/09627251.2012.721967.pdf [11] Ibid [12] https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/young-people-criminals/ [13] Ibid

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