New York has enacted laws that replace words like “inmate” and “mentally retarded” with “incarcerated person” and “developmentally disabled” in official documents, The Associated Press reported.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera sponsored the bill that was signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul, changing the term “inmate” to “incarcerated person” in official documents in August in an effort to reduce the dehumanizing and demeaning stigma created by language that critics say is outdated or offensive.
“Language matters,” Rivera said. “This is another concrete step our state is taking to make our criminal justice system one that focuses on rehabilitation, rather than relying solely on punishment.”
The August inmate law is intended to reduce the stigma of incarceration. The July law changed “mentally retarded” to “developmentally disabled.”
The laws were modeled after a 2018 bill that replaced gendered titles with gender-neutral words in official documents, such as replacing the words “fireman” and “policeman” with the gender-neutral terms “firefighter” and “police officer.”
However, some Republicans disagree with the inmate measure, saying it coddles criminals, claiming these changes may become politically risky, especially for candidates running for office who want criminal justice reform.
“Parading around a bill that removes the word ‘inmate’ from legal materials at a time when crime in New York continues to spike at an alarming rate shows you a lot about how misguided the Demo-crats’ agenda is,” said Assemblymember Chris Tague, a Republican from Schoharie, a town west of Albany.
Hochul, however, maintained that safety can go hand in hand with social justice.
Many incarcerated people feel the label “inmate” dehumanizes them and may feel degraded when referred to as “inmate” by a guard, such as when they are visiting with their families.
“Word choice to describe certain individuals does matter …especially when it comes to individuals who are vulnerable in any way,” said Michael DeGraff, a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Changing the wording in language gives individuals the opportunity to process the past and present by helping to understand who they are and how they got to where they are, said DeGraff.
“By treating all New Yorkers with dignity and respect, we can improve public safety while ensuring New Yorkers have a fair shot at a second chance,” said Hochul in a statement.