The "Criminal Justice System?" How About Calling it the "Human Justice System"
Date:  03-16-2017

It's all about the language
The “Criminal Justice System?” How about calling it the “Human Justice System”

By David H. Kerr

The first step in this essential reform is to look at what the phrase “criminal justice system” is saying. Are we yet ready to replace the word “criminal?” How about calling the reformed system the “Human Justice System?”

We are so used to this word “criminal” that it may never occur to us that it can hurt and brand people who have been found guilty of crimes. We demand that people who commit crimes change but we keep using this word “criminal” to brand them with their past mistakes so that they must carry that past around with them like a permanent ball and chain.

As a NJ State Parole officer in Newark from 1965 – 1967 I worked with people who committed crimes, served a prison sentence for these crimes and were out trying to “turn their lives around.” We call these people “parolees.” I have no problem with this term since it will end one day when they reach their “parole expiration date.” Yet the phrase “ex-con” is used all the time to refer to a former convict, just as the term “ex-addict” is used to refer to a person, now clean and sober, who once abused illegal drugs.

What is even more troubling is what appears to be a present day cultural bias. People in the suburbs addicted to opioid painkillers like oxycontin are usually not seen as addicts or even ex-addicts and if they were convicted of a crime, they would likely not be called an “ex-con.” Instead they are seen as “people receiving prescribed medication for their pain.” When they must switch to illegal heroin to avoid the withdrawal syndrome[1] after their prescriptions run out for the legal opiate oxycontin for example, they are still seen as needing opiate medication i.e. heroin, to alleviate constant pain. They have a brain disease as described by Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They are “self-medicating.” However, if the people are from a minority culture they are more likely to be referred to as heroin addicts or “dope-fiends.” They are not fortunate to have money to purchase their “medication” so they have to resort to crime just to procure the money to support their ever growing heroin addiction.

This name calling is hurtful to addicted people who need love, guidance, reality confrontation and coaching rather than demeaning labels, to support their recovery. Also, it’s difficult to reform and improve a system with the word “criminal” in the title. Reforming a system called the “Criminal Justice System” must begin at the top since we are not dealing with criminals but rather people who need to be coached to grow and to develop a sense of self that can convert into self-respect and self-esteem. These are the kinds of traits that will help each of them become a loving and caring parent in a healthy positive relationship. Let’s start the reform at the top with the name of the “system” itself. We should extract the word “criminal” and humanize the system, so that it is unbiased by past behaviors.

With that in mind, I am suggesting that from now on, we call the system, “The Human Justice System.” Let’s inspire people to change and improve their behavior and attitude by referring to them as “human beings” rather than “criminals.”


[1] The “withdrawal syndrome” is another term for “cold turkey” detoxification or detox with no medication. It can be very painful if there is no medication to assist so as to support a more comfortable withdrawal.

David H. Kerr is the Founder of Integrity House and retired from that organization in 2012. He has since been working on innovations in recovery with a new organization The Recovery Advisory Group. He can be reached at