Why Person-First Language?

By Sandy . . . The Colorado Sex Offender Management Board has instituted a policy that will replace the words “sex offender” when referring to their clients with “adults who commit sexual offenses.” This has met with a negative reaction from many. The editorial board of the Denver Gazette exhibits this negativity in an extremely well written and persuasive piece about why person-first language puts victims last.

In spite of the mocking tone used toward the subject matter, person-first language has value. It does away with the long-known dangerous practice of labeling people, and especially labeling them with what we don’t want them to be. It recognizes that, while the person committed an offense – or at least was convicted of an offense – he or she is still a person, and that people can and should and do change and move beyond their pasts.

Person-first language recognizes that people are not their crimes, but rather that people commit crimes. And above all, it gives those who have committed crimes, are repentant, and have changed or want to change a way of looking at and feeling about themselves that is correlated with a reduction in criminal behavior.

The major criticism of this change appears to be that it is not “victim-centered” and will further “put victims last.”

Rather than victims being put last in the existing process, they are heard and zealously defended by state prosecuting attorneys as well as victims’ advocates and are allowed to speak at sentencing and encouraged to submit written impact statements to the court.

That said, it was never the intention of the criminal justice system that prosecuting attorneys represent the victims; instead, they speak for and represent the state and the entirety of its citizens.

Contrary to misinformation that those with sexual convictions offend “over and over,” studies done for several decades show consistently that the vast majority do not reoffend. Would not the citizens of the state, including past and future victims, benefit if, rather than continuing with “umbrella” practices and policies that treat everyone the same, resources were directed toward identification, treatment, and management of those few who more likely will reoffend?

Another major concern expressed is that this “trend” of person-first language may influence other entities and actually effect a change in public policy.

Let us hope so.

The current policies and procedures, in spite of every rehabilitation and reentry initiative conceived, are designed to keep those who have prior sexual convictions from rehabilitation and reentry.

It is difficult to imagine anything more destructive to successful reentry than a public sexual offense registry and all that it has spawned. In spite of this system being shown totally ineffective in improving public safety in a vast body of evidence, it persists.

It persists because it is what the people want, and the people want it because the image of all those with prior sexual crime convictions is overlaid with so much negativity and assumption of sure, future danger that little else could be thought. And calling them sex offenders – present tense — is the groundwork upon which all of this is laid.

The registry as we know it today was designed in the wake of a few, horrific situations where children were abducted and murdered. The similarity between the perpetrators of those crimes and the nearly million who are listed on sexual offense registries today is non-existent, yet the consequences are not only the same but have worsened through the years.

The fact is, virtually everybody convicted of a sexual crime and given a prison sentence will be returning to society at a future date. We must ask ourselves how we want them returned. Do we want them returned thinking themselves worthless and incapable of change? Do we want them believing that they are indeed “sex offenders” and criminals and might as well behave as such?

Or do we want them seeing a deserving future in a law-abiding society because they are people who have committed crimes, some of them bad crimes, but crimes for which they have paid according to their sentencing?

“Victim-centeredness” is a term which appears to be synonymous with perpetual vengeance and perpetual punishment.

Neither of those is consistent with our justice system, and they certainly are not consistent with what maximizes the initiatives for improved public safety for all, which puts victims not last, but first.

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20 Thoughts to “Why Person-First Language?”

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  1. T. S. Rohnevarg

    Both terms are both presumptive, not necessarily true and largely defamatory. To identify and individual as an adult who “COMMITS” offenses asserts that such individual may be characterized as REGULARLY engaging in such conduct. The term “Sex OffenDER” expresses precisely the same defamatory assertion: not that the individual was engaged in criminal conduct at a particular time in the past but that such individual GENERALLY commits crimes of this nature. Without a legal finding, that assertion is plainly slanderous.

  2. T. S. Rohnevarg

    “extremely well written and persuasive piece”? Hard to imagine how that piece merited that description since it only perpetuates many of the false assertions about individuals that have been convicted of sexually-oriented criminal offenses. The problem with the language is not ‘person first,’ ‘person last’ or substituting vegetables names for criminal offenses. The problem is the use of the present participle, i.e., an ongoing practice or activity, rather than a past occurrence. The use of the participle is what perpetuates the prejudice. Perpetuating ‘woke’ imbecility is not helpful to the re-introduction of ex-cons into society.

    1. Sandy

      Well written because it is; good sentence structure, phraseology, and transitions. Persuasive because it uses examples and arguments that will resonate with hundreds of thousands of people.
      Well written and persuasive don’t make it factually correct. Obviously it is not or I would not have written this rebuttal.

      1. CherokeeJack

        Can’t we just be known as people, human beings or citizens? Do people who stole something 40 years ago constantly called get called thieves? I am not trying to compare stealing with a sex offense, however making our past who we are forever doesn’t help anyone.

  3. D. M. Jacques

    This change of language is not an improvement on “sex offender”. It just has more syllables.

  4. CJB

    Thank You Ms Sandy…

    Once Again, The Verbiage is in the Present Tense of The English Language…As, If, Every Person Who is Forced to Register is Continuing to Sex Offend

    The ‘Designation’, as if there Really Had to Be One, Should Always be in The Past Tense Of The English Language….NOT IN THE PRESENT TENSE…..

    {Mrs ‘B’, my Elementary English Teacher (RIP) Would Be Very Proud Of Me and Supportive of Me, as Her Daughter is Supportive of me to this Day, as she is an Elementary Teacher….}

    It is Like Eating, One Bad Pierogi!
    -bad dough and filling!…never got crispy!

  5. The Criminalized Man

    Thanks for the researchgate link. I agree with T. S. Rohnevarg and others advocating a past-tense term rather than present tense.

  6. jim

    I am stuck in the nasty state of colordo. First thing of fact is the whiny, whimpering and self-indulged “victim advocacy groups” that are like bulling children. When anyone stands up for the people that they have decided no one should like, they cry, whimper and say how they are being revictimized. Just to bring attention to themselves so they can continue to live in the pitty pot they call their life. Instead of recovering and living a successful life and moving on from a bad event, like normal people should, they want everyone to say “OH Dear you poor sad victim! Here, here it will be ok we will coddle you and save you so just waddle in yourself pity and live the rest of your life as a victim”. So as long as they can whine and cry and never move on with their life and with the ignorant media supporting their pitty party things will never change. The usa has become a third world country where hate and revenge are the normal days activities.

  7. jim

    The next issue. Shouldn’t we be more worried about and concentrate our fight on the new regulations the Miss Informed, Arrogant, Ignorant and Useless attorney general has applied to us on the 7th of January. Whats more important? What they call us, or the pages and pages of new abuse they will do to us that WILL BE applied to every sex offender in this country in 4 weeks, next year. HAPPY NEW YEAR! Its time to stop this and get really together in this fight.

  8. TS

    There is a letter from the Kansas Federal Public Defender to the US AG bringing to his attention the shortcomings of the latest round of SORNA changes and specifically calling out the name of those who have offended previously as being “those who have prior sex offense convictions” because they are not currently offending which is a term Congress coined. He got the term from Packingham and adroitly used it as others should too. (Pg 2, footnote 1). Thank you Sandy for using it here because it is the truth for those who are impacted by these terms.

    The Florida chapter of this organization has the letter linked for reading under the Dobbs Wire posting if you are interested in reading it.

    1. Sandy

      Yes, my choice would have been, “Those with prior sexual crime convictions.” I very much favor the word “convictions” because it allows for the fact that some of those with convictions are actually innocent of the crime.

  9. Ken C

    One thought that has come to mind quite frequently over the past 14 years is that it’s never mentioned (or I just don’t see it) is that one premise of our criminal justice system, through its very nature, can strike fear in the minds of those who have committed a crime. Fear of going to prison, of being IN prison, being ostracized by the community, fear from the disenfranchisement that accompanies a conviction- all these factors can create a resolve in most people NEVER to commit crimes again. Maybe I’m a coward, but I strive DAILY to never put myself in that situation, of reoffending EVER again. That or common sense….

    1. TS

      @Ken C

      It is not a justice system but a legal system where deals can be made with handshakes behind closed doors and money can be helpful. There is no justice in the current legal system in this country.

  10. mut

    i agree. an ostracised individual is easier to bully, badger, brow-beat and traffick into antisocial behavoir.

  11. Victor Palma

    Well written Sandy – thank you! When I was in therapy, my therapist insisted that we refer to ourselves in just this way – persons who had committed a sexual offense. We were definitely not to refer to ourselves as “sex offenders!” It took me a little while to understand why, but I definitely get it today! As you said, I am a person who, in the past, committed a crime but that does not mean I will commit a new crime in the future or that I am commiting a crime in the present. I hold my head high – I am a person of value and have much to contribute to society. As you know so well, I cannot tell you how frustrating it still is almost 7 years post incarceration to be labeled a sex offender by society and the very high hurdle that useless registry has created for me and so many others. I’ve paid the price through the legal system yet continue to wear the scarlet letter around my neck which feels more like a ball and chain attached to my ankle. It never seems to end. I am pragmatic about it though and have been successful in spite of the ball and chain. I look forward to the end of this horribly useless and expensive public registry. The focus should be on prevention not punishment alone.

  12. Capt Charles 'Bob' Munsey Jr. USN Ret

    If it is so necessary to put a label on a citizen, couldn’t that label have been: “Persons who have committed a sex offense” ? i.e. past tense.

  13. Tammie Lawson

    This is absolutely uncalled for and is still degrading,dehumanizing,humiliating and wrong!! The first language will only create more vigilantes and shed more light into the words SEX OFFENDER which seems so active as if we always offending!! A person with past SEXUAL OFFENSES…..is HORRIBLE!!!!! OFFENSES?? SERIOUSLY?? The real problem is that we deserve equality under the law to be treated as any other person who committed a crime!! Hell my grandson was severely abused physically and there is NO PUBLIC REGISTRY for child abusers nor does society call them that!! These terms should be abolished same way others words in history are downgrading, and offensive we deserve the right to live life without the fear of a label that causes much HATE and vigilantes to target nit only people required to register but our families!! What Colorado done was bolster the new language!!! There is NOTHING about that wording that changes for individual citizens who are required to register on some lame registry that has proven to be ineffective and provides no safety for families and children but rather harms families, children and our communities. Tax money in the billions for registries are in place for in all 50 states with hideous hidden agendas that tax payers are unaware of!! I’m sure our American People would find better ways to use our tax money if they knew the truth of the Registry!! Ow and buy the way I’m a special breed…Im an American Citizen who is required to register for life because the states laws require me to do so, I’m also labeled as a VIOLENT SEX OFFENDER TIER III in Virginia for reporting a SEX CRIME TO AUTHORITIES!!

  14. WC_TN

    The modern media is a purveyor of hate, fear, and division. They are more propagandist than publushers of fact.

  15. TS

    Author bell hooks passed away yesterday. She wrote “Once you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities, then you see that people can change, and there is hope.”

    Let that soak in as we discuss first-person language and the way labels are applied with their lack of analysis to the person(s) who have a prior sex crime conviction. People are not fixed static entities, but can change, grow, mature, etc away from their prior conviction, regardless of what the crime is, to lead healthier lives for themselves and those around them. Those in position to make such changes possible must believe in this and show maturation of their own as people and leaders because they must believe in people who can do what is needed (especially when given the right tools and environment to do it in).

    This idea is what needs to be challenged in the status quo of today when it comes to labels, less than adequate tools and proper environment to grow, etc, in. This is what legislatures/Congress need to be called out on when they show lack of leadership behind the dais as they propose legislation. Those people who have a prior sex crime conviction are not fixed or static, but neither are victims who can grow, mature, change to not be victims without forgetting the event while leading healthier lives for themselves and those around them.

    Life is not fixed or static and neither are people. Both are dynamic and need to be cared for in manners of growth and maturation, not stifling it to prevent growth and maturation. Hope exists and people should encourage it for both those impacted in a negative life event.

  16. Joann D'Aprile-Lubrano

    I see no difference in the two terms. They both point to a person who is a sexual offender in the present tense. If they wanted to do better, and I use that term loosely, they might start with making the sentence in past tense. Getting rid of the word “commit” altogether is also a good idea.
    At a minimum, “adults who committed a sexual offense”, is marginally improved. Or, “adults who were found guilty, or convicted of committing a sexual offense.”
    No matter how you slice it, neither of those terms have anything to do with the “victim(s)” one way or the other. Because the words are not about the victim. Unless we include the person who was convicted of the crime, has served his or her time, but continues to be victimized by the injustices of the system. That’s the actual victim here. Along with all us collateral people out here.