Keywords: Criminal Justice Discourse and Institutional Performance

Dr Gabrielle Watson was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Law from September 2017 to August 2019. She is now a Fellow at Edinburgh Law School.

Why have ‘keywords’ become so ubiquitous in criminal justice? Where do they come from? How do they shape institutional practice? The official discourse of the police appeals to 'courtesy', 'tolerance' and 'fairness.' In prisons, we find an analogous preoccupation with 'decency', 'humanity' and 'respect.' In 2016, the Scottish Government published its National Strategy for Community Justice, in which it was proposed that those released from Scottish prisons no longer be described as 'offenders' - on the grounds that it is demeaning and counterproductive - and instead as 'persons' with 'convictions' or 'offending histories.' 

This three-year study, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust from September 2017, considers how institutionally-approved keywords - together with the legal values that they represent and reflect - shape the practice of policing and imprisonment. It is structured around two key lines of enquiry. The first charts the changing linguistic sensitivities of both institutions in recent decades by conducting a close reading and interpretation of academic discourse and official documentation. The second involves qualitative interviews with key actors in policing and imprisonment, especially those with responsibility for drafting mission statements and giving effect to particular keywords in practice. What is the process whereby both institutions come to subscribe to their respective mission statements? Who is consulted and how deliberative is that process? How can we make sense of the ambiguous and sometimes contradictory uses of certain words? Do they perform a purely rhetorical function? Alternatively, do practitioners cultivate a sense of ownership over these words and assume responsibility for the values and aims they express?

It is well-established that language is not merely a descriptive tool but a generative one: our linguistic choices have the capacity, at least, to condition our relations to others. It has gone unnoticed, however, that this idea might assume special significance in the context of policing and imprisonment, where the asymmetries of power between state and subject are especially pronounced and social relations are - all too often - rendered fragile or even non-existent. The Keywords study aims to offer a challenging corrective to current scholarship which, at best, gestures towards the significance of our linguistic choices for those we seek to police and punish.