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Words Matter

I hear it every day. As a lawyer, I ask for my clients to be brought in the courtroom, and a bailiff refers to him or her as an “inmate.” I go to the jail to visit with a client, and I am asked for the inmate’s booking number. My clients have, on occasion, asked to file citizen’s complaints, against an officer for one reason or another – usually excessive force, fabrication of evidence, or lying. Clients get told “you aren’t a citizen, you are an inmate.” So¬†you see, words matter.

In our county jails, most of the people there are awaiting trial. What this means is that although they are accused of something, no evidence has been put to a jury and no one has pronounced them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or otherwise. An inmate is someone who has been convicted of a crime.

So what’s the big deal? They’re both in jail right? Why should they be afforded privileges?

Well, someone who is being held in jail before trial is there for one of two reasons. Either (1) they cannot afford the bail; or (2) no bail has been afforded to them. They are still presumed just as innocent as you or I. The only function of that jail is to keep them safe and deliver them to court as provided. It is not to be punishment. In fact, believe it or not, the concept of due process forbids someone being punished before a finding of guilt, yet it happens every day.

Words matter. Words influence how we perceive a situation, or to put it bluntly, a person. We recognize this in business marketing, in managing investments, even in designing a menu. The language we speak even influences our perception of time (Broderitsky, 2001.) or color. (Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol 131, No. 4.). A study by the University of California in San Diego demonstrates that word choice can influence not only our perception of the problem, but also our approaches to solving it.

As a lawyer, I often think about what the word choices we use and allow others to use in the presence of the jury, do to my client’s chances to receive a fair trial. When jurors wander the halls and they hear of the people being brought into the courtroom as “inmates” there seems to be an almost imperceptible weight placed on the scale against my client. And don’t get it wrong. Bailiffs, officers, sergeants, screeners, deputies, and clerks talk just as much about work in their own workspace as we do in our offices.

We need to stop allowing dangerous word choices to slip in against our clients. We need to start correcting our courtroom staff when they refer to the “inmates.” They are not inmates they are detainees. Would you want to be called guilty if you were only accused of something?