With crime and violence raging across the state of New York, including cities outside of the Big Apple like Albany and Rodchester, and with fatal fentanyl overdoses at epidemic levels, the state legislature it taking action. Maydoon Khan of the Associated Press reports that Governor Kathy Hochul signed a new law this week to strike the word “inmate” from state law and replace it with “incarcerated person” in order to remove the stigma of serving time in prison or jail for criminal behavior. The bill’s sponsor, Bronx Democrat Senator Gustavo Rivera, told reporters, “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.” I bet millions of New Yorkers already feel safer because of this new law. A linguistics professor at MIT compared calling a person in prison an inmate with calling an African American born into slavery a slave. By changing the words “you help people better understand who they are and how they got to be where they are,” he said.
The professor may have missed an important distinction between slaves and inmates. Inmates are people who choose to commit crimes and are arrested, tried and incarcerated because of that choice. Inmates also prey upon innocent victims.
It is also questionable that substituting “incarcerated person” for “inmate” will actually change anybody’s perception about someone serving time in prison or jail for committing crimes. To truly remove the stigma, the state needs to take another “concrete step” and purge the word criminal from state law. Perhaps “victim of society” could be the replacement.
Meanwhile, folks in Albany, where the state legislature meets, are four times more likely to be murdered than in New York City and two-and-one-third times more likely to be victims of violent crime. Thankfully, Governor Hochul cleared up any question about the state’s priorities by telling us that, “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.”
The state’s zero bail law and weak sentencing are already providing habitual criminals which multiple second chances. Some criminals in NYC have reportedly be arrested and released over fifty times. I’m not sure that the dignity-enhancing change to calling criminals “incarcerated persons” will have much of an impact on public safety.