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Why call someone by what we don’t want them to be?

Why call someone by what we don’t want them to be? The ethics of labeling in forensic/correctional psychology
Gwenda M. Willis
School of Psychology, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

Labeling a person by their past behavior or a criminal conviction is commonplace throughout forensic and correctional psychology. Labels including ‘offender’ and ‘sex offender’ infiltrate academic writing and conference presentations, names of professional organizations and treatment programmes and, at times, traverse therapeutic work. That such labels are frequently used and rarely advocated against suggests that helping professionals either (i) don’t recognize labeling as an ethical issue, or (ii) don’t consider it their role to challenge. The current paper aims to encourage critical reflection on the use of labels in forensic and correctional psychology. Key concerns are illustrated through a focus on labels commonly assigned to individuals who have sexually abused, where labeling is especially prolific. The scope of labeling is reviewed, and implications for rehabilitation and reintegration discussed. Next, an analysis of the ethics of labeling individuals on the basis of criminal convictions, past behavior or psychological phenomena is presented. It is argued that the use of such labels contradict core ethical principles including beneficence and nonmaleficence, respect for the dignity of all persons, and responsibilities to society. A de-labelling movement for forensic/correctional psychology and related fields is proposed.

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