Criminal Justice Reform Phrase Guide

Five Tips for Language That Changes Hearts & Minds


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Messaging Memo
Published: 2018

Momentum is growing for policymakers to improve the criminal justice system and adopt strategies that keep all communities safe; prevent harm; and uphold the values of fairness, equal justice, respect, and accountability. Yet research, experience, and input from participants in the criminal legal system reveal that the current vocabulary around criminal justice often perpetuates misconceptions, reinforces stereotypes, and hampers improvement of the system. What follow are suggested ways to revisit the language used, along with tips and specific suggestions to promote a more equitable and more accurate discourse that is respectful and effective at advancing criminal justice reform.

The goal of this document is to provide suggestions for effective and appropriate language to move the needle toward reform. We welcome your reactions, ideas, and insights.

#1: People, Not Labels

The traditional language of the criminal justice system is often dehumanizing and fosters stigma, stereotypes, and fear. Instead of labels, talk about the people touched by the system; they are members of our community and nation.

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#2: Obstacles Before Outcomes

Instead of jumping straight to unequal outcomes, take the time to explain the unfair systems and inequitable treatment that lead to those outcomes. Otherwise, many audiences will inaccurately assume that unequal outcomes happen because some groups are simply more prone to crime.

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#3: Break Stereotypes

Antiquated language about communities and crime tends to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and drive flawed and misdirected policy. Use language that respects communities and acknowledges the disinvestment in neighborhoods and groups that contributes to higher levels of crime and violence.

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#4: Avoid Unnecessary and Harmful Distinctions

Opinion research shows that most Americans support reforming the justice system and do not automatically distinguish between violent and nonviolent crimes or drug and other offenses. Avoid making those distinctions unnecessarily; these lines of demarcation can reduce support for broad-based reform of the system.

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#5: Foster New Thinking and Innovative Approaches

Repeating old tropes and phrases tends to reinforce outdated thinking about the justice system. Consider fresh ways of talking about the system that promote the values the system should represent.

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For additional resources on communications for criminal justice reform: