San Francisco promotes use of criminal-justice euphemisms—in a ludicrous way

How far can the sanitizing of language go in the name of social justice? Well, sometimes the sanitizing is salubrious, but often it’s not. From the San Francisco Chronicle (click on screenshot) we have a particularly ludicrous example: changing the words used to characterize offenders in the criminal justice system. These guidelines were just adopted by the city’s Board of Supervisors, and they’re in a nonbinding resolution. Nevertheless, the Mayor and the city’s police department are considering the suggestions, while the district attorney’s office already agrees with them.

Here are some of the changes recommended in the article:

A “convicted felon” or someone released from jail is now a “formerly incarcerated person,” or a “justice-involved” person or simply a “returning resident.”

Parolees and people on probation are now “person on parole,” or “person under supervision.”

Drug addicts or substance abusers are now “a person with a history of substance use.

Why did they do this, and are these changes beneficial? Well, they did this because they don’t want people stigmatized for the rest of their lives by having been in jail (see their explanation below). It also supposedly reduces racism and white supremacy, but if you believe that, I have some land in Florida to sell you.

But the de-stigmatization doesn’t wash because presumably there are reasons to mention someone’s history of incarceration or drug use. In that case “a formerly incarcerated person” doesn’t add any information to “convicted felon”, while “justice-involved” people could be judges or somebody accusing others. And “returning resident” is completely obscure.

“Parolee” is in effect “person on parole”. Does the “person-first language”, which this is supposed to represent, soften that designation? “Person under supervision,” is, of course, as obscure as “returning resident”.

And “person with a history of substance abuse” simply takes “substance abuser” and puts “person” in front of it. Does that improve society or burnish someone’s image? I don’t really see how.

But I’ll let the supervisors, who voted for these changes, speak for themselves:

According to the resolution, 1 of 5 California residents has a criminal record, and words like “prisoner,” “convict,” “inmate” or “felon” “only serve to obstruct and separate people from society and make the institutionalization of racism and supremacy appear normal,” the resolution states.

“Inaccurate information, unfounded assumptions, generalizations and other negative predispositions associated with justice-involved individuals create societal stigmas, attitudinal barriers and continued negative stereotypes,” it continues.

“We want them ultimately to become contributing citizens, and referring to them as felons is like a scarlet letter that they can never get away from,” Haney said.

But you wouldn’t always refer to them as “convicted felons” unless that information was essential. And if you want to leave out their criminal history, why say anything about it, much less “formerly incarcerated person”?

The “institutionalization of racism and supremacy” supposedly conveyed by the original language is ridiculous. There is nothing racist about “parolee” or “convicted felon”—period.

I guess the the Chronicle agrees with me, as it ends its article with this wry observation:

The language resolution makes no mention of terms for victims of crime, but using the new terminology someone whose car has been broken into could well be: “A person who has come in contact with a returning resident who was involved with the justice system and who is currently under supervision with a history of substance use.”

In other words, someone whose car was broken into by a recently released offender, on parole with a drug problem.

That clear?

From now on, I expect all the San Francisco papers to refer to Jeffrey Epstein as a “justice-involved person” rather than “convicted sex offender.”

h/t: j.j.


  1. GBJames
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I’m a dismay-responding person, I suppose.

  2. Mark Reaume
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    “A person who has come in contact with a returning resident who was involved with the justice system and who is currently under supervision with a history of substance use.”

    Does this mean that the supervisor has a substance abuse problem? Not that I’m judging.

  3. Dsg
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:02 am | Permalink


  4. marou
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Of course the term ‘offender’ is a euphemism for ‘criminal’

  5. enl
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    At one of my jobs, we had a person with a history of substance abuse (very recent history…. minuted) who ended transitioning to justice involved while in a stolen… sorry, misappropriated… no, wait, acquired with insufficient authorization… company truck. In the process he drove through a guardrail and into a protected waterway… wait, um, the truck displaced a guardrail and proceeded to find its way into a protected waterway….

    He also beat the sh… no, wait, assaulted… no, um, performed undesired cosmetic and structural body modifications to several other persons.

    I believe he will remain justice involved for several more years (almost 10 now), as he has had issues in prison.. um, I mean the correctional… no, while residing in the Justice Dispensary…

    Did I manage to say it right?

    • Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      When you say ‘protected waterway’, don’t you mean ‘supremacist colonized people’s fluid migration route’?

      • enl
        Posted August 20, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        It is protected for the glorious use and enjoyment of indigenous non-human persons (mobile and nonmobile CO2 producers, as well as CO2 cleansing, non-mobile persons), and to the exclusion of human persons and non-indigenous, oppressive, colonizing non-human persons (again, of the aforementioned categories)

        I’ll stop now, other than to mention that I had a relationship at one time with a person that a) spoke this way in all seriousness, b) believed in equal rights for all species, including plants and bacteria. It didn’t last long.

    • Adam M.
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink


  6. mfdempsey1946
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    A tube steak remains a hot dog.

  7. Jon Gallant
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Hopefully, we will soon stop referring to individuals in prison as “prisoners”. That will help them a lot. I have to wonder whether the penalty for using the old disapproved words will be a sentence to a term of residence in a facility under correctional system supervision?

    • Bob
      Posted August 21, 2019 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      I worked in a Flordia Department of Corrections prison in the 90s. Prisoners in the prison were not called prisoners nor were they called convicts despite being convicted. They were called inmates.

      Prison guards are always called Correctional Officers.

  8. Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Just another day in the PRSF. As Hitchens used to say, look how far the termites have spread, and how well they’d dined.

  9. DrBrydon
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Any term can become derogatory in context. All they’ve done is add a layer of ridicule.

  10. Roo
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Thank goodness. When midwives lecture me about gaining baby weight too fast, I will inform them that I am not a person who has gained weight, I am a “person who formerly pulled my car over and ate an entire can of nacho cheese in a hormonally induced state.” But that happened in the past. I see no reason for them to harp on it in the present. Rude, lol. The stupid scale is also hopelessly biased against my former actions, because it is also rude.

    As I’ve complained about before, the Left seems enamored with the idea that language has magical powers. In reality, I think whatever labels one uses will become tinged with whatever biases society has. It’s the biases that need to be addressed more than the language. This has been the case in special education, I’ve noticed. Terms that are meant to be neutral eventually come to carry a negative connotation. The solution is not to keep changing the words, the solution is to increase exposure to and understanding of various diagnoses that fall under the special needs umbrella. I think in the special needs world, there has been a concerted effort to do this and it has done a lot of good.

    While I think there is at least some feedback in both directions, I think language is largely a reflection of people’s preexisting internal world, and not vice versa. I think there is something to accusations that the Left is too lofty, cerebral, out of touch, whatever, when they ignore the real world, flesh and blood side for the semantic side.

    • XCellKen
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      But doesn’t the Keto Diet ™ teach us that eating a can of nacho cheese is not only good for you, but can lead to weight LOSS ???

      • Roo
        Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        That’s a good point. People should totally follow my healthful example.

      • Posted August 20, 2019 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Why did they name a diet after O.J.’s cabana boy?

    • Adam M.
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Some of those biases surely reflect accurate observations of reality, by the way. I think we should only be seeking to correct inaccurate biases.

      There may be the occasional guy who commits a single felony, goes to prison, and becomes a model citizen after he gets out, but the majority of felons in state prisons (which contain the vast majority of prisoners) are there for violent crimes and the typical violent prisoner has something like twelve prior convictions. Perhaps some of that stigma is justified…

      • ladyatheist
        Posted August 20, 2019 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

        Source of your data? I’m curious how many people were convicted of felony drug possession, theft, or other non-violent crimes compared to violent felonies. There are many people who commit felonies but are sentenced to a misdemeanor charge in a plea deal. I’d be interested to know if that skews the data, too.

  11. Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Can one have been incarcerated and not be convicted of a felony? At first glance there is a change in meaning there.

    • Adam M.
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      It certainly conveys less information about the severity of their crime.

    • Posted August 20, 2019 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Actually, yes. In California one who has been convicted of a misdemeanor, defined as an offense punishable by up to 1 year may be sentenced and incarcerated in county jail. Oftentimes they are also placed on probation for some period beyond their incarceration.

      One convicted of a felony, defined as an offense punishable by more than 1 year is incarcerated in a state prison and are oftentimes placed on parole after their release.

      So both misdemeanants and felons are incarcerated, the former in county jails/less than a year/often get probation; the latter are incarcerated in state prisons/more than a year/are oftentimes paroled.

    • Posted August 20, 2019 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Of course there is a change of meaning. The term “convicted felon” doesn’t convey the fact that the person has completed the punishment meted out for the said felony. whereas “formerly incarcerated person” tells us they have either been released or they busted out.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 20, 2019 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        I agree. ‘Convicted felon’ implies once a felon, always a felon. It seems unduly prejudicial for someone who may have been out of jail for decades.

        And you can certainly go to jail for non-violent offences. Stealing cars, cheque fraud, for example.

        The other two euphemisms, though, seem pointless to me.


        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 20, 2019 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          On reflection, even ‘ex-con’ sounds less prejudicial, since it at least includes the ‘ex’.


    • ladyatheist
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you can be incarcerated while you wait for your trial, e.g., Epstein.

  12. publilius
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    A big problem is that if these new terms become widespread, they will take on the stigma of the old terms, and yet another set of new terms will be needed.

    • Posted August 20, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Consider the habit of using acronyms:
      “person under supervision” = a PUS; a “justice-involved person” = a JIP.

  13. KD
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Under the Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971), a facially neutral testing program is racially suspect (if not “reasonably related” to an employment-based skill) if it has a disparate impact on minorities.

    Granted, that case has been watered down over the years, but its standard leftist and center right pablum that any process creating a racially disparate outcome must be racist and driven by structural racism.

    Given that certain racial/ethnic groups per capita are over-represented in the criminal justice system (and other groups under-represented), I don’t see why the criminal justice system isn’t racist unless you reject disparate impact analysis. [. . . and if you want to criticize it, you can look at the fate of Amy Wax.]

    I’m not sure that changing the name is actually going to fix anything, you’d basically need a quota system, like you do in employment and school admissions.

    Note, if you contend that disparate impact stems from “something else”, you are going to be called out to clarify what “something else” means, and it will go down hill from there. In fact, questioning disparate impact analysis is generally viewed in itself as a manifestation of racism, otherwise progressive ideology loses its epistemic self-closure and must fend against the hard rocks of reality.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      That something else could be not having a lawyer or judge who can knock your sentence down to a misdemeanor, a cop who gives a warning to someone who resembles his brother (or knows his brother) but arrests someone who doesn’t, not being able to pay bail, excessive patrolling of your block based on arrest data (which would be a self-fulfilling prophesy), etc.

      I would like to see a change in definition that would put violent criminals into one category and non-violent criminals into a different one. A useful 3rd category would be drug- or alcohol-induced behavior. Likewise for people who had a long history of similarly performed misdemeanor crimes who crossed a line and finally was convicted of a felony. They all present different types and level of threats to society if they don’t change their ways.

      • KD
        Posted August 21, 2019 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        Sure, but it can also be a prosecutor or a judge knocking something down because they don’t want to be seen as a racist–that kind of tag usually doesn’t get you invited to nice dinner parties. But you notice, we are now discussing rival hypotheses which could be subjected to rigorous empirical study and which presumably differences of opinion could be tolerated, which would threaten the ruling dogma.

        In any event, there is pretty good empirical evidence that the criminal justice system is biased in favor of women (you can just look at sentencing in sex crimes), so it is sexist in a neutral sense, but not sexist in the politically correct sense of being only concerned with disparate impacts on females. For example, gender disparities in STEM is a social problem, similar disparities in pediatric medicine are not. I’m sure the world is littered with male plumbers who wanted to be pediatric doctors but were pushed out by structural gender bias, the same way there are so many women social workers pining to be computer programmers but for the patriarchy (and the H1B visa program).

        But no one wants to deal with that, because cops and prosecutors and judges and usually legislatures want to be white knights, and academics and journalists aren’t really interested in facts that confound a pre-existing ideological narrative. . . and at the end of the day, all societies regard low-status men as expendable, whether as cannon fodder or convicts or coal miners, for probable evolutionary reasons.

  14. Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    “You wouldn’t…”
    but journalists, PR people, politicians, etc often do, and that’s why they are suggesting we don’t use terms that serve as lifelong Scarlet Letters.

    I know formerly incarcerated people and former substance abusers who continue to be hassled by “justice providers” and “Heroic First Responders” and can’t get legitimate jobs, so my hands will remain unwringed over this one.

  15. Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    FWIW, roughly 25% of U.S. adults have a criminal record and thus are “ex-cons.” And being an ex-con is an essentially permanent status with many legal disabilities attached to it (so-called “collateral consequences”). It is, in effect, an inferior civic status that amounts to a second class of citizenship.

    What the Supervisors are trying to say is that, rather than bolster this two-tiered society, we should use language that de-emphasizes it. The gesture is probably futile, however, since new coinages developed to replace invidious epithets soon acquire the same baggage and taints of the original epithets as small-minded people come to associate the new coinages with the persons or groups to which they refer. There are abundant examples, even in very recent history.

    • Joe Baldassano
      Posted August 21, 2019 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Excellent points John!

  16. Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:27 pm | Permalink


    “From this day forward…all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!”

    What if someone dies, sorry, I meant passed away…that’s too harsh…I mean temporarily unable to check their Facebook.

  17. Dragon
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    “A person who has come in contact with a returning resident who was involved with the justice system and who is currently under supervision with a history of substance use.”

    To me, that description sounds like: a person had an interesting conversation with a lawyer, who had recently returned home from vacation. The lawyer’s wife was watching the conversation and had applied sunscreen to the entire family during the vacation.
    That ticks all the nouns and adjectives I think.

  18. rickflick
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I think just people being respectful and kind to everyone else is the only advice needed. There has to be some language that should change to protect the innocent, but for the most part I think you have to trust human nature to look through labels and see the person. Euphemisms are transparent anyway, and usually lead to all kinds of impertinent questions that lead to more attention to the issue than would otherwise be given.

  19. Steve Gerrard
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    There’s actually a difference worth pointing out, however skeptical you may be about the relevance of wording.

    The changes are all focused on the possibility that the person in question may not have that status for the rest of their life – that people can and sometimes do change.


    formerly incarcerated – but not anymore – instead of convicted felon

    a person with a history of substance use – who may no longer be an addict or abuser – instead of drug addict

    As an example, I give you Dave’s Killer Bread, which started here in Portland, though I think is now available across the country:

    The “formerly incarcerated” Dave did 15 years. Now he and his brother run a successful bakery, and believe in second chances. “One third of our employees at our Oregon bakery have a criminal background.”

    • KD
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      I disagree.

      The problem of stigmatization from convictions can be addressed through annulment or expungement laws, which some states have and some don’t, and I don’t think are available on federal charges.

      • aljones909
        Posted August 21, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Similarly in the UK. Disclosure laws effectively remove minor convictions from a person’s record after a specific time period has elapsed.

  20. Filippo
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    “The language resolution makes no mention of terms for victims of crime . . . .”

    I look forward to the SF Board of Supervisors taking on that task.

    I wonder what their take is on “restorative justice” when it comes to victims. To my mind, to “restore” means just that – the condition existing prior to the criminal incident. E.g., how does one become unraped?

  21. Taz
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I propose changing the name from “Board of Supervisors” to “Board of Persons Who are Idiots With Too Much Time on Their Hands”.

  22. ladyatheist
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Someone who has kicked a drug habit should not be described as an addict. That should go without saying, but apparently it had to be said.

    Someone with cancer isn’t a canceric, and someone with acne isn’t an acneac, so people with diabetes should be called people with diabetes, people with schizophrenia should be called people with schizophrenia, and it makes total sense to describe someone with a history of substance abuse as a person with a history of substance abuse. I’m all for ending the practice of using adjectives as nouns.

    But really… we have much, much bigger problems to worry about. Worse than worrying about how we define people is worrying about how other people worry about how they define people. I’m much more concerned about the U.S. setting off a missile today, Trump selling off parts of national parks, and kids growing up stupid because their city’s water has been contaminated with lead to mention a few worrisome recent events.

  23. Posted August 20, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    In that case “a formerly incarcerated person” doesn’t add any information to “convicted felon”

    Actually, it does. A convicted felon may still be serving their sentence. The alternatives are trying to convey the idea that the person in question was convicted of a felony but has served the sentence meted out by the courts. Admittedly, none of the suggested alternatives are entirely satisfactory for this purpose.

    Similarly the terms “drug addict” and “person with a history of substance use” do not mean the same thing. The former implies they are still addicted, the latter does not. Also, substance use does not imply having ever been addicted. If you ever smoked cannabis at college and had the misfortune to be arrested a few times for it, would you be happier with being called a drug addict or a person with a history of substance use?

    • ladyatheist
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      Someone can be incarcerated while awaiting trial, then have charges dropped or be found not guilty.

  24. phoffman56
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I read all (I think) re ‘felon’ above, don’t know which to reply to, and should emphasize that I agree with most of what Jerry says except maybe with the following:
    Looking at a few dictionaries, that word has two meanings, namely ‘formerly convicted in the sense of whatever the country’s justice system uses that word for’, and, perhaps unfortunately, it also means ‘evil person’. My impression is that often the latter is what readers take, whereas the writer often has no idea if it’s still the case.
    So ‘felon’ should be replaced by something more precise when the writer or speaker has no idea whether maybe that formerly incarcerated person has subsequently become something like the second coming of Saint Francis of Assisi.

  25. CJColucci
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who dislikes this language is free not to use it. If other people prefer this language, it’s no skin off your nose.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 20, 2019 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      Unless it’s used about *you*. 🙂


  26. peepuk
    Posted August 21, 2019 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Isn’t everyone “a person of substance use” if he or she isn’t dead?

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