The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs is eschewing the terms “felon” and “convict” when officials refer to individuals convicted of crimes, opting instead for less “disparaging labels,” Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason announced last week.
The Office of Justice Programs plans to substitute terminology such as “person who committed a crime” and “individual who was incarcerated” in speeches and other communications as part of an effort to remove barriers that officials say hinder progress of those who re-enter society after completing their prison sentences.
“I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration,” Ms. Mason wrote Wednesday in a guest post for The Washington Post. “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 reentry programs are designed to prevent.”
The announcement follows a series of initiatives introduced as part of the Justice Department’s first National Reentry Week, through which law enforcement officials hope to reduce recidivism by changing features of the criminal justice system.
A criminal record can prevent people from obtaining employment, housing, higher education or credit, the Justice Department noted.
“These often-crippling barriers can contribute to a cycle of incarceration that makes it difficult for even the most well-intentioned individuals to stay on the right path and stay out of the criminal justice system,” states the department’s Roadmap to Reentry Plan, which lays out steps the department plans to take to reduce recidivism.
The re-entry plan does not contain the words “convict” or “felon.”
Ms. Mason said she issued a recent memo to staff within the Office of Justice Programs “directing our employees to consider how the language we use affects re-entry success.”
The directive only applies within the Office of Justice Programs and not across the entire Justice Department, as was first incorrectly reported by The Post. DOJ officials did not provide a copy of the memo.
Local lawmakers have sought to discourage use of terms that they believe carry a stigma for ex-convicts.
In 2013 Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order that required city employees to use the term “returning citizen” when referring to a person who has been released from jail or prison.
Over the course of National Reentry Week, the Obama administration announced a series of initiatives meant to support ex-offenders in the transition from prison. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch last week reached out to state governors to encourage them to allow prisoners to exchange prison identification cards for state-issued IDs once their sentences are completed. President Obama announced plans to prohibit federal agencies from asking applicants for government jobs about any criminal history until the final phase in the hiring process.
Refining the language used to refer to ex-offenders “in no way means condoning criminal or delinquent behavior,” Ms. Mason wrote.
“Those who commit crimes must be held accountable,” she wrote. “But accountability requires making amends, an objective that is much harder to achieve when a person is denied the chance to move forward.”