The Underground Scholars Initiative Language Guide

Document Type



There is a resource that provides guidance for replacing common, dehumanizing words in our legal vocabulary: the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) Language Guide (“the guide”). The guide was released in 2019 by the USI, a group of “formerly incarcerated and system-impacted academics” at the University of California, Berkeley. It offers substitutes for commonly used but harmful criminal law terms.

The guide is short, simply written, and easily accessible online. In about 1,500 words it describes why humanizing language is important and includes both a terminology guide of 15 terms and a topical guide for four related topics. Ever since a student introduced it to me, I have used it in my legal writing classroom as a tool to help students eliminate biased language from their writing. It is equally useful to practicing attorneys who are looking for ways to decrease bias in their own writing.

This article introduces some of the terms in the guide and attempts to answer questions you might have about using the guide.