Prison Journalism Navigator
The language of the law is complicated. PJP compiled this glossary, drawing heavily from the AP Style Guide, mainly for our own editors as a quick reference guide to terms we commonly come across. We hope it can be useful to other journalists and newsrooms, who may see these words in their reporting or in books and articles by incarcerated writers.
We intend to keep updating this as we encounter legal words and terminology that require clarity to avoid their misuse. Drop us a note at <email@example.com> if you have an addition, modification or clarification to contribute.
burglary, larceny, robbery, theft. Legal definitions of burglary vary, but in general a burglary involves entering a building (not necessarily by breaking in) and remaining unlawfully with the intention of committing a crime.
Larceny is the legal term for the wrongful taking of property. Its nonlegal equivalents are stealing or theft.
Robbery in the legal sense involves the use of violence or threat in committing larceny. In a wider sense it means to plunder or rifle, and may thus be used even if a person was not present: His house was robbed while he was away.
Theft describes a larceny that did not involve threat, violence or plundering.
USAGE NOTE: You rob a person, bank, house, etc., but you steal the money or the jewels.
commutation. A legal term for a change of sentence or punishment to one that is less severe.
habeas corpus. A writ ordering a person in custody to be brought before a court. It places the burden of proof on those detaining the person to justify the detention. When habeas corpus is used in a story, define it.
homicide, murder, manslaughter. Homicide is a legal term for slaying or killing. Murder is malicious, premeditated homicide. Some states define certain homicides as murder if the killing occurs in the course of armed robbery, rape, etc. Generally speaking, manslaughter is homicide without malice or premeditation. Don’t describe a homicide as a murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.
felon, felony, misdemeanor. A felony is a serious crime. A misdemeanor is a minor offense against the law. A felon is someone convicted of a felony. Convicted felon is redundant. (PJP advises staying away from the word “felon” altogether because it is pejorative. See Language Around Incarceration for more on this issue.)
innocent, not guilty. In court cases, plea situations and trials, not guilty is preferable to innocent, because it is more precise legally. (However, special care must be taken to prevent omission of the word not.) When possible, say a defendant was acquitted of criminal charges. Be careful of describing someone, who says they were wrongfully convicted, as innocent without sufficient evidence.
jail is not a prison. A jail is for those awaiting trial or held for minor crimes, whereas prison describes a place for people convicted of serious crimes.
offender, inmate, convict. Widely used terms, the use of which we strongly discourage. (For more on the importance of people-first language, see our section Language Around Incarceration.)
Offender — in general, a person who commits an illegal act.
Inmate — a person confined to an institution such as a prison
Convict — a person found guilty of a criminal offense and serving a sentence of imprisonment.
pardon, parole, probation. The terms often are confused, but each has a specific meaning. Do not use them interchangeably.
A pardon forgives and releases a person from further punishment. It is granted by a chief of state or a governor. By itself, it does not expunge a record of conviction, if one exists, and it does not by itself restore civil rights.
Parole is the release of a prisoner before the sentence has expired, on condition of good behavior. It is granted by a parole board, part of the executive branch of government, and can be revoked only by the board.
Probation is the suspension of sentence for a person convicted, but not yet imprisoned, on condition of good behavior. It is imposed and revoked only by a judge.
sex crimes. generally involve illegal or coerced sexual conduct against another individual. Examples include:
Child sex offender — also called child molestation, child sexual abuse is a form of abuse in which an adult or older adolescent engages in sexual activities with a child, indecent exposure, child grooming, and sexual exploitation of a child, including child pornography. Note that child sexual abusers are not considered pedophiles unless they have a strong sexual interest in prepubescent children. Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as having intense and recurrent sexual urges towards prepubsucent children that have either been acted on or caused the person with attraction intense distress or interpersonal difficulty.
Indecent exposure — a person exposing their genitals in public
Prostitution — offering or engaging in sexual acts for payment
Rape — unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception
Sexual assault — the catch-all crime that encompasses unwanted sexual touching of many kinds
Solicitation — It’s illegal to entice someone else to commit a crime (such as prostitution).
Statutory rape — People below the age of consent cannot legally consent to having sex, even if there was no force or the perpetrator believed the victim was old enough.