I’m in the middle of writing a speech for an event on criminal justice under the coalition government Friday week. The speech is called, rather modestly, Thinking the unthinkable: alternative strategies for the future.
As part of that I have been thinking about why it is that we find it so difficult to look beyond the label when it comes to individuals subject to criminal justice capture. They are inmates or prisoners, offenders and criminals. Rarely more.
Last December’s issue of cjm carried a discussion on the language of criminal justice. It included an eloquent piece by Frances Crook of The Howard League on why the term ‘offender’ mystifies more than it informs. To quote from her article:
'For too long it has been easy for politicians to treat certain sections of the population as ‘other’, implying that they are less than human. Insulting labels that define the action or illness as if it defines the whole person inhibit that individual from confronting the problem and moving on; just as importantly, the label prevents us from understanding as it becomes all we see…
'Someone who commits an offence is not an offender; they are someone who has done something. The action does not define the whole person. They may also do good things and they will certainly fit into other categories that can offer a different definition like parent or friend. By insisting that the offence overcomes all other parts of the person we are condemning them to a sub-human category for whom there is no hope.'