A Justice Department division will no longer refer to people released from prison as “felons” or “convicts” because of the stigmatizing effects of the terms, an agency official announced in a Washington Post editorial Wednesday.
Instead, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason said the “disparaging labels” will be replaced by “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated.” The new lexicon is set to be utilized in “speeches, solicitations, website content and social media posts” emanating from the Office of Justice Programs.
“I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration,” Mason wrote. “The labels we affix to those who have served time can drain their sense of self-worth and perpetuate a cycle of crime, the very thing re-entry programs are designed to prevent.”
OJP is responsible for research and development efforts to fight crime, but takes no direct law enforcement actions. The agency also works with state and local authorities.
But not everyone is on board with the shift in vernacular.
J. Christian Adams, an attorney and ex-DOJ official, said the move is the latest attempt by the Obama administration “to destigmatize the most abhorrent behavior.” Referring to ex-cons as “felons” is a good thing, Adams told FoxNews.com.
“It helps people make important decisions about hiring, about renting, about associating with people who have shown a proclivity to break the law,” he said. “Shame is not a bad thing. It’s helped civilization rise. And people who cannot be trusted, who have committed violent crimes in the past, there’s nothing wrong with calling them exactly what they are – and that is felons.”
Mason, who has headed OJP since 2013, wrote the editorial on the heels of National Re-entry Week, last week’s attempt to bring attention to the plight of those recently released from prison. A set of measures to make it easier for ex-cons to obtain state IDs once released from jail was announced in April as part of the initiatives.
The American Bar Association documented nearly 50,000 “collateral consequences of criminal convictions” during a four-year period, Mason wrote, citing penalties such as employment and voting issues that plague ex-prisoners years after they’ve been released. Experts believe that number may be low, given that local ordinances also often present barriers for ex-cons to gaining employment.
“Our words have power,” Mason wrote. “They shape and color our estimations and judgments. They can build up or tear down.”
The OJP move is certainly not the first time officials have tried to rebrand convicts in an attempt to make their return to civilian life easier. In October 2013, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter proposed amending the city code to replace “ex-offender” with “returning citizen.” He had already issued an executive order making the language swap mandatory for city employees.
Adams said it may be easy to shift the recent tide of softening language if a leader with “courage” is in place. But he’s not necessarily optimistic about the prospects.
“In the past this has been a one way ratchet, that every time these attempts to delegitimize American society are put in place, nobody has the courage to reverse them,” he said. “They don’t want to be criticized.”