The Way We Talk About Justice Reform

Uncategorized, World

By Dawn Freeman,

A recent opinion piece in The Hill by President and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, DeAnna Hoskins, claims that there is a “missed opportunity” to change how the country sees the justice system reform efforts due to the language being used to discuss it; and I agree.

To use terminology such as “inmate,” “offender,” “convict,” “felon,” “criminals,” even with the “ex” invokes despair, and despair leads to the loss of hope, and the loss of hope leads to depression. This negative language is impactful regardless if it comes from Public, Private, or Philanthropic sectors.

Richard Brouillette’s article, Dehumanization is Causing a Global Mental Health Crisis, discusses the correlation between dehumanization and mental health. Brouilette states “To feel dehumanized is to feel treated as an object, as a thing, with no self-direction, sense of justice, or will—to feel part of a situation over which you have no control.”

Individuals who are in incarceration, under community supervision, or transitioning (reentry) back into the community often have that feeling of helplessness and dehumanization. That hopeless mentality is only perpetuated further by the common language used to refer to them or their past. There is a severe mental health crisis within the justice system, and I believe that we can start making a difference by simply changing the dialogue around it.

For example, to have an “offender” or “inmate” reentry program, product, or service pronounces a permanent state over the “clients,” “residents,” or “participants.” A person is not an offender, which implies a permanent state; people commit offenses, which appropriately categorizes their decisions. Using those terms when assisting individuals in the rehabilitation process is more humanizing because every human can make decisions, good and bad.

Many agencies and advocates have already started changing their culture by being conscious of the terms and dialogue that they use to discuss this issue. However, cultural changes don’t happen overnight, and this movement needs to spread to make a significant difference. It is imperative to acknowledge, educate, and consciously practice with all community members about how to adopt this better use of dialogue. Especially when supporting the rehabilitation of an individual. I believe that together as a society, we can reduce the mental impact of the people seeking assistance during their journey by merely changing the way we speak about them.

We must look at public perception, from both the impacted and non-impacted communities, and examine how people describe incarcerated, supervised, and formerly incarcerated individuals. As a collective, we need to make a concerted effort to understand what is the best dialogue to use at each stage that demonstrates rehabilitation.

Technology can help us drive the greater conversation about the language we use surrounding justice reform. To take my language poll, visit

About Dawn Freeman:
Dawn Freeman is the President & CEO of The Securus Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit organization helping communities re-engage and successfully reintegrate returning citizens.

She takes a vision and makes it a reality through comprehensive strategy development and tenacious ambition. She is an inspirational leader whose passion and determination motivates and encourages others to step outside of their comfort zone and aspire to do more. Respected as a credible voice in business and on a personal level, Dawn earns a seat at the table wherever she serves.

Dawn is not a stranger to incarceration or recidivism. She has experienced several of her immediate family members go in and out of jail and prison over the years. Additionally, Ms. Freeman has several family members who dedicated 20+ years to law enforcement and corrections, which provides her with an even greater perspective on the challenges of pre-release programming and reentry, not just from the viewpoint of the incarcerated individual, but that of the corrections and law enforcement family.

Since 2008, Ms. Freeman has financially supported the reentry efforts of her church and local non-profit organizations. In 2016, Dawn expanded her community service efforts beyond a monetary contribution and began volunteering her personal time to a local reentry focused non-profit organization as a Facilitator. After engaging with individuals with backgrounds like her own family members and due to her decade long tenure in the corrections industry, the concept of The Securus Foundation was born. With the guidance and support of the Executive Team at Securus Technologies, The Securus Foundation is a reality.

Dawn holds an M.B.A. with an Accounting specialization and B.A. in Business Administration with a specialization in Management from Saint Leo University.

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