San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors believes that words matter, and they’re aiming to change the lexicon around how we stamp criminals and the illegal behavior they’ve engaged in.

The Board has approved a new resolution stating that words like “felon,” “offender,” convict” and “parolee” would become a relic of the past, opting for “people-first language.”

The idea here is that by adopting this new vernacular, it would help thwart any pejorative or objectifiable prejudices. Thus, this more middle-of-the-road, quasi-positive speech would help individuals not be defined by their tarnished pasts, making their re-entry into society more seamless.  

“We don’t want people to be forever labeled for the worst things that they have done,” Supervisor Matt Haney told the Chronicle, highlighting the proposal's glass-half-full intentions. “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.”

Labels like “felon” and “offender” would be re-branded as “returning resident” or “formerly incarcerated person”; “parolee” could, theoretically, become a “person under supervision”; a "convict" would become a “currently incarcerated person.”

Even young criminals would be given newly worded identities, instead of being thought of as “juvenile offenders” or “delinquents" to being described as “young persons impacted by the justice system.”

"Language shapes the ideas, perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals, societies, and governments," the Board wrote in the resolution's summary. "Language usage that emphasizes or prioritizes a criminal record over the individual undermines, devalues, dehumanizes, demoralizes and dishonors the humanity of that individual."

The Board’s approved new language is still, as of this article's publishing, a non-binding resolution, although the district attorney has endorsed the measure. Mayor London Breed, however, hasn’t yet given her approval.

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