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MASTIO: Urgent new protection for felons’ feelings

D.C. steps up to balance the scales for ‘returning citizens’

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Imagine, if you can, the shock and pain that denizens of the nation's capital feel as they return from prison only to discover that the office tasked with helping them is called the "Office on Ex-Offender Affairs." Such a pejorative welcome must surely harm the tender psyches of those perps. And, frankly, to discover that society attaches a stigma to felons must be quite the shock.

Worry not, because the stalwart D.C. government has a plan to stanch the suffering. According to Charles Thornton, newly appointed head of the ex-offender office, Mayor Vincent C. Gray plans to change the name to the "Mayor's One City Office of Returning Citizens." Ex-offender, Mr. Thornton says, has been "termed derogatory." Returning citizen sounds ever so much nicer. And, really, do felons deserve any less?

If there are any Democrats out there wondering why Republicans don't take them seriously, this is a case in point. The D.C. government is facing a huge budget shortfall, which it hasn't figured out how to deal with yet, but there is time and energy to focus on making sure that dope fiends, prostitutes, gangbangers and the assorted other "returning citizens" don't get their feelings hurt. No doubt there's also a few thousand dollars in some account somewhere to change any signs and business cards carrying that derogatory label. Money well spent, says I.

Then again, perhaps Mr. Gray might want to ask the people whose neighborhoods have been destroyed, whose children have been corrupted and whose lives have been put at risk what they think. Should he maybe even consider that robbery and assault victims want there to be, you know, a stigma attached to robbing and assaulting them? Of course, maybe they're not one of those groups that Democrats officially care about. Perhaps renaming ex-offenders as "Returning Citizens" is a step toward a D.C. effort to ban city government and maybe private employers from even asking about criminal convictions on the application form.

More importantly, will the plan make a real-world difference? Can Mr. Gray's effort help put one felon back on the right path? I doubt it. What he is offering here is plain old symbolism, that Democratic habit of making the appearance and effort of caring more important than the reality of actually helping someone.

Indeed, Mr. Gray is in office because he promised a return to education reform symbolism instead of that nasty, divisive, actual school reform practiced by the predecessor he trounced. Firing crappy teachers, forcing concessions from the teachers unions and rewarding the best teachers is hasty. Change takes time.

It has been a mere 28 years since "A Nation at Risk" slapped America across the face and told us our schools were failing generations of poor and minority children - leaving many without prospects and leading to many more becoming those wonderful "returning citizens" we should all admire. We have plenty of time to make measured steps and build consensus before we act. The increase in federal funding for education since then under each successive administration, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and now Obama, has barely had time to work.

We know Democrats care about children and minorities and the poor because they say they do, and they spend lots of money proving it. It is beside the point that all their caring has led millions of Americans to be dumped out of schools with no marketable skills and into a culture of dependency perfectly shaped to be recruited into the next class of "returning citizens."

That "failure" is no such thing. In reality, it is just another opportunity for Democrats to prove that they care, this time, about felons, by treating them with honor and respect and spending money on them. And who can argue with that? The world always needs more caring.

David Mastio is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times.

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