Stop labelling people who commit crimes ‘criminals’

Amy Lee, criminal record number 780LB, January 1930. State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, NSW. Courtesy the Justice and Police Museum, Sydney

Kimberley Brownlee is professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK. Her latest book is Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (2012).

Debates about people who have committed crimes are littered with epithets. We brand people as offenders, criminals, crooks, felons, convicts, lawbreakers, outlaws and delinquents. We label those who spend time in prison jailbirds and yardbirds. And we call those who’ve completed their sentences ex-offenders, ex-convicts and ex-cons. We also apply more specific epithets to people for particular offences, such as thief, murderer, rapist, sex offender, paedophile and serial killer. Even conscientious newspapers such as The New York Times and TheGuardian use these labels liberally, with headlines such as: ‘Prison Nurse Accused of Sexually Assaulting Convicted Rapist’, ‘To Catch a Rapist’, ‘How Not to Raise a Rapist’, ‘Sex Offender Village’, ‘Sex Offenders Gain Right To Appeal Against Registration’, and ‘Why Giving Polygraph Tests To Sex Offenders Is A Terrible Idea’.

In many other social areas, we have moved away from this kind of labelling. We’ve largely abandoned labels such as the autistic, the handicapped, the retarded, the disabled, the blind, the poor, and the undeserving poor. We now see just how prejudiced these labels are. We recognise that giving people such labels hides the real complexity of their situation, and limits their ability to shape their own lives. Instead, we speak now of ‘people who have autism’, ‘people who are living in poverty’, ‘people with visual impairments’, and ‘people with disabilities’.

So why use epithets in the area of crime?

One reason is that branding can be useful. Consider the red ‘A’ for adulterer worn by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850). Or consider the amputated hand of the man who stole, or a prisoner’s tattooed serial number. These punitive markers publicly identify and stigmatise transgressions. Their usefulness – at least for our ancestors who faced threats from many directions – is obvious, as is their brutality. Assuming that someone who has transgressed once poses a continuing danger was often a safer survival strategy than giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

Another reason that epithets seem justified, some might say, is that anyone who has committed a crime is responsible, unlike someone with disabilities or someone living in poverty. The argument goes that people who offend are blameworthy, culpable and liable to punishment, so we do them no injustice when we classify them by their offence, even if that offence is a one-off.

But this thinking is wrongheaded. People who offend are not always blameworthy. And, people who are blameworthy are not always criminally liable. Moreover, even when people are both blameworthy and liable, they have a life story beyond the simple fact of committing a crime. Psychology studies indicate that we are more lenient in our judgment of someone for an offence when we know the details of their story. They become to us not just a 16-year-old male who engaged in armed robbery, but the neighbours’ son, Jack, whose dad passed away two months ago, whose mother is struggling with depression, and who was beaten up at school again last week.

The life stories of many people in prison are much bleaker than this. 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 qualification, have learning difficulties, mental health issues or cognitive disabilities, and used Class A drugs.

This point about knowing people’s stories highlights another likely reason why we continue to use epithets to describe people who offend. It’s that we often don’t have full information about them. We hear the sensational highlights of their crime in the newspaper, but we know little or nothing about them as people, or the experiences that preceded – and might have led up to – the offence.