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Crime and incarceration

Published onOct 20, 2022
Crime and incarceration


Avoid stereotypes. Various racial and ethnic groups can be portrayed very differently in the media. In the United States, for example, Black people and Latinx people are often portrayed on the news as persons who commit crimes and break the law (Vaes et al). At the same time, they are systemically under-represented as victims or defenders of the law in the same programming.

In a 2017 study, Jeroen Vaes, Marcella Latrofa, et al. analyzed how Italian journalists cover crime. They found that the style and language changed when reporting on crimes involving marginalized racial or ethnic minorities (“outgroups”), revealing linguistic biases (2019: 13). Thus, unconscious bias in journalists can “help to create and maintain a distorted and stereotyped image of minority group members” as aggressors and people who break the law (2019: 14).

A well-documented bias is the use of passive tense when reporting on sexual abuse cases. (Vaes, et al.) For example: The girl was raped by an older man (this places the perceived responsibility of the crime on the victim). Instead of: An older man raped the girl. Another factor contributing to bias is the use of certain adjectives that either make the crime seem worse (aggravating adjectives) or less severe (attenuating adjectives).

The study found that aggravating adjectives were used more often when journalists reported on crimes committed by racial or ethnic minority groups (2019:17) and that “the way members of racial/ethnic minorities are depicted in the media is detrimental to the development and maintenance of crime-related stereotypes that typically target such social groups” (2019:20)

The study concluded that while “newsmakers might be under pressure to color and sensationalize their news reports, the present findings plead for more factual-based and neutral language when reporting crimes in the media, especially when the crime suspect is a member of a racial/ethnic minority” (2019: 21). 

General guidelines to follow are: 



Inferring inflamed or moralistic adjectives.

“A Tunisian irregular immigrant sexually abused a 15-year-old girl.”

“An undocumented man sexually abused a 15-year-old girl.”

(Context would be needed to determine if his nationality is relevant to the narrative.)

Using aggravating/attenuating adjectives if it shows an inherited or implicit bias.

Example of aggravating language: “The Muslim immigrant from Somalia did not accept the Western lifestyle of his daughter.” 

Example of attenuating language: “An uncensored employee was pressured by the police and finally confessed.”

Use more factual, neutral language.

Can the statement be supported by empirical evidence or is it biased?

In other contexts, you would need to assess if more information is needed to impart accurate and constructive information. You need to question if the author is “censoring” themselves and for what purposes?

Passive tense where responsibility of the crime is placed on the victim. 

“Yesterday morning the victim was cleaning the call center offices when she got assaulted.”

Use active tense and, where possible, place the alleged perpetrator as subject.

“While cleaning the call center offices yesterday morning, a man (or an unidentified assailant) assaulted a woman.”



Counseling@Northwestern. (2019, October 16). Inclusive language guide. The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Vaes, J., Latrofa, M., Suitner, C., & Arcuri, L. (2019). They are all armed and dangerous! Biased language use in crime news with ingroup and outgroup perpetrators. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 31(1), 12–23.


Language used to describe people who are affected by the criminal justice system should be respectful and person-centered (Tran, World Health Organization).

The WHO style guide of 2013 states that “Stigma-free language can positively influence media narratives, public opinion, and, above all, ensure that policy changes are inclusive of this priority population.”

In their article, “Words Matter,” Tran et al. advocate four guiding principles for writing about people who are incarcerated or have been in the criminal justice system.

  • Engage people and respect their preferences. Ask about the language the person prefers to identify as/with. Extending this – language usage must be adapted to local contexts and communities.

  • Use stigma-free and accurate language. Using language to talk about people who are incarcerated is often reflective of one’s own biases, opinions, and moral point of view. Expressing from this point of view does not lend itself to supporting respectful interactions. For example, “terms that devalue, exclude, discriminate, stereotype, objectify, dehumanize, and reinforce a ‘criminal self-image’, such as offender, criminal, felonprisonerconvict, should be avoided. Inmate should not be used as it is ambiguous and refers to people living in any institution, including psychiatric hospitals” (Tran).

  • Prioritize the individual. Incarceration is not the only experience an individual has and it does not define them. Avoid use of terms like murderer, rapist, or pedophile as they emphasize the crime instead of the person. Use person-centered language to describe the condition a person has or the circumstances in which they live.

  • Cultivate awareness. It is important to realize the power and influence that language has on shaping discourse and opinion. Therefore, authors should be aware of the language they choose to use. They should strive to be humane and constructive and use language that “promotes respect, dignity, understanding, and positive outlooks” for persons in the criminal justice system, and encourage others to do the same (Tran).



Abuse; misuse

(Heavy) substance use; substance use disorder;1 dependence syndrome2

Correctional, offender, penitentiary, or prison health services

Health services in detention settings; healthcare in prison

Crazy; mental; insane; psycho; mentally ill; emotionally disturbed; demented

Person with a mental health condition; person with dementia

Dungeon; hole

Solitary confinement

Drug user; abuser; addict; junkie; dependent

Person with a substance use disorder; person with dependence syndrome; person who uses psychoactive substances

Ex-prisoner; ex-offender; ex-inmate; ex-felon; ex-con; criminal; thug; post-carceral

Person who was in contact with, involved in, interacted with or experienced the criminal justice system; person with convictions; person who was formerly incarcerated

Illegal immigrant; illegal; unlawful non-citizen; visa overstayer; undocumented alien

Person who lacks resident documentation; undocumented immigrant; irregular immigrant

juvenile delinquent

young person with justice system involvement

Murderer; rapist; drug dealer

Person convicted of murder; person charged with rape; person arrested for selling drugs

Prisoner; inmate; felon; offender; convict

Person who is incarcerated; person who experienced incarceration; person in detention/jail/prison; person living in detention/jail/prison; person involved in, or experiencing the criminal justice system

Prostitute or prostitution

Person involved in sex work, or in sale or trade of sexual services; sex worker

Probationer; parolee

Person on probation; person on parole

Adapted from Table 1 in Tran et al. 1 Per DSM-5. 2 Per ICD-10.

In terms of representation through photographs, exercise caution in searching for images that portray the criminal body in a negative, stereotyped, or stigmatized light. Researchers Diana Miranda and Helena Machado conducted a study of people who were incarcerated in three Portuguese prisons. They noted that each person’s photograph was taken upon arrival at the prison when many of them were experiencing homelessness, were under the influence of drugs, or were freshly bruised from interactions with the police. These photographs, though used on their prison identification cards, were never updated regardless of the length of their sentence. In fact, people who later served another prison term would use the same photograph from their original stay. The study showed that “portraying elements of unworthiness, unpleasantness, and immutability plays a significant role in the parole board’s decisions and produce an embodied sense of identity and perpetuation of stigma” (Miranda).

Avoid selecting images that show the criminal body as abnormal, ugly, and deviant; or someone with a “mean face” or characteristics that are monsterish or animalistic (Miranda).

Do not only select images of the criminal body where the subjects are Black, Latino, or other historically marginalized groups commonly stereotyped as criminals.


Cox, A. (2020). The language of incarceration. Incarceration, 1(1), 1–13.

Miranda, D., & Machado, H. (2018). Photographing prisoners: The unworthy, unpleasant and unchanging criminal body. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 19(5), 591–604.

Tran, N. T., Baggio, S., Dawson, A., O’Moore, A., Williams, B., Bedell, P., Simon, O., Scholten, W., Getaz, L., & Wolff, H. (2018). Words matter: A call for humanizing and respectful language to describe people who experience incarceration. BMC International Health and Human Rights, 18(1).

World Health Organization. (2013). WHO style guide (2nd edition).

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