San Francisco Authorities Vote to Soften Language Used to Label Criminals

August 22, 2019 Updated: August 22, 2019

San Francisco, which according to a recent study (pdf) on criminality in 30 big American cities is second only to Baltimore as the most crime-ridden, has moved to scrub clean terminology related to crime.

The city’s Board of Supervisors voted last month on a resolution (pdf) that would introduce changes that would include scrubbing the crime lexicon clean of a spectrum of words deemed “pejorative.”

Axed under the new guidelines would be apparently offensive words like “offender,” while a “convicted felon” would henceforth be known as a “justice-involved person” or “formerly incarcerated person” or a “returning resident.”

Drug addicts or substance abusers, meanwhile, would become “a person with a history of substance use.”

The resolution “recognizing the harmful impacts of the institutionalization of the use of pejorative language to refer to formerly incarcerated people, and urging the City and County of San Francisco to adopt person-first language” passed on July 16 but it remains non-binding until the mayor signs off on it.

Spokesman Jeff Cretan was cited by the San Francisco Chronicle as saying that Mayor London Breed “doesn’t implement policies based on nonbinding resolutions, but she is always happy to work with the board on issues around equity and criminal justice reform.”

The board, which is a legislative body within the government of the City and County of San Francisco, in its “person-first” language proposal justified the changes by claiming that words like “prisoner,” “convict,” “inmate” or “felon” essentially “only serve to obstruct and separate people from society and make the institutionalization of racism and supremacy appear normal.”

“Inaccurate information, unfounded assumptions, generalizations and other negative predispositions associated with justice-involved individuals create societal stigmas, attitudinal barriers, and continued negative stereotypes,” it continues.

“We don’t want people to be forever labeled for the worst things that they have done,” Supervisor Matt Haney told the Chronicle. “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.”

The publication noted that, if adopted, the sanitized language may yield some convoluted descriptions of crime.

The victim of a drug-addicted burglar could well be known to police as “a person who has come in contact with a returning resident who was involved with the justice system and who is currently under supervision with a history of substance use.”

While the mayor has yet to endorse the proposed language shift, police spokesman David Stevenson was cited by the Chronicle as saying that the department has “made our members aware of the resolution and are researching possible impacts on operations and communications.”

Crime Rates in San Francisco

According to the recent Brennan Center for Justice study, the overall crime rate for San Francisco for 2018 was 6,246.5 crimes per 100,000 of population.

Only one city, Baltimore, had a higher overall crime rate of 6,377.6 per 100,000 people.

San Francisco fared more favorably when it came to violent crime rates, which for 2018 stood at 651.4 per 100,000. Cities in the upper range of violent crime were Detroit (1,858.7), Baltimore (1,815.6), and Indianapolis (1,139.3). Those in the lower range were San Jose (365.7), San Diego (329.4), and El Paso (310.8).

The murder rate in the nation’s 30 largest cities overall has seen a similarly significant drop, according to an earlier Brennan Center report. The 2018 homicide rate in these cities was 8.0 percent lower than in 2017.

“Modest declines in most cities explain this decrease,” the Brennan Center noted in a press release. “The murder rate in Chicago, which increased significantly in 2015 and 2016, declined by nearly 12 percent but remains roughly 40 percent above 2014 levels. Baltimore, another city that continues to struggle with violence, also saw its murder rate decline by 9.1 percent.”

Epoch Times Photo
Homicides per 100,000 people. (Brennan Center for Justice)

Broken down into individual cities, the 2018 homicide rate in San Francisco, expressed as the number of murders per 100,000 people, was significantly lower (at 5.2) compared to the cities that topped the table: Baltimore (50.7), Detroit (36.5), and Washington DC (22.7).

The cities with the lowest number of homicides per 100,000 of population were, according to the report, San Diego (2.4), San Jose (2.7), and El Paso (3.3).

“Some cities saw their murder rates rise in 2018, such as Washington DC (35.6 percent) and Philadelphia (8.5 percent),” the Brennan Center noted. “These increases suggest a need to better understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities.”

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