A plea to stop labeling people who have a criminal record
On April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring civil rights to more than 200,000 individuals once convicted of felonies. His courageous action is welcome and long overdue, and there are now only three states nationwide that permanently disenfranchise people based on a felony conviction. The Governor’s press release promises new restoration orders on a regular monthly basis as additional individuals become eligible — the model followed in Iowa between 2005 and 2011, when convicted individuals were restored to the franchise under a similar executive process before it was discontinued by a Republican governor.
The one sour note on an otherwise happy occasion was the pervasive use of the word “felon” in print and media accounts to describe the beneficiaries of Governor McAuliffe’s action. This ugly stigmatizing label has been broadly criticized as counterproductive to reintegration efforts, perpetuating stereotypes about people with a criminal record and encouraging discrimination against them. While the Governor himself was careful with his language, not a single major newspaper reporting on his action could resist including the word in its headline.
It is not that hard to avoid. For example, instead of announcing that “Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to Felons,” the New York Times might just as accurately have told us that “Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to Thousands” — and in the bargain conveyed an additional useful piece of information about the scope of the order. Over the weekend, the Washington Post could have told us that “Governor McAuliffe’s Move on Voting Rights Upends 2017 Races,” and anyone who cared would have known exactly what was meant.
The problem is not confined to headline-writers, or to journalists new to the issues. Senior reporters at The Times used the word “felon” 37 times in two articles published on April 23. One of the articles added the meaningless prefix “ex-,” seeming to concede the problem without dealing meaningfully with it.
The one bright spot at The Times — and a very bright one at that — was provided by its editorial board, which put Governor McAuliffe’s action in the larger voting rights context and avoided labels entirely, showing that where there’s a will there’s a way.
On the eve of National Reentry Week, it seemed timely to reprint a piece written several years ago for The Crime Report, in an earlier (and evidently unsuccessful) effort to persuade journos of good will to stop using the term because of its negative effects in an increasingly important area of public policy.
What’s in a Name? A Lot, When the Name is “Felon”
At a recent conference of journalists at John Jay College, I raised an issue I have about language in the media: the frequent use of the word “felon” to describe a person who has been convicted of a crime.
One recent example, in a Washington Post story this month, is headlined: “Erhlich plans law school clinic, training program for felons seeking pardons.”
“Felon” is an ugly label that confirms the debased status that accompanies conviction. It identifies a person as belonging to a class outside many protections of the law, someone who can be freely discriminated against, someone who exists at the margins of society.
In short, a “felon” is a legal outlaw and social outcast.
But the word “felon” does more work than that. It arouses fear and loathing in most of us. I confess that it arouses those visceral feelings in me. I do not want to live or work around felons. I do not want to socialize with them.
The word “felon” conjures up images of large, scary people (men, of course) whose goal in life is to steal my things and hurt me, the staple weekend fare on MSNBC. Affixing an “ex-” changes nothing. Felons deserve a wide berth and whatever opprobrium they get.
I make a living representing people who have been convicted of a crime. They are, for the most part, very interesting and thoughtful people who have a great deal to offer society. In many cases, it is precisely their experience in the criminal justice system that has made them this way.
So it is hard for me to think of my clients as “felons.” And yet that is the label they must bear, in the workplace, in their communities, and in society at large. It is an unhelpful label and in many cases it is deeply unfair. My clients come to me because they hate the label, because they want it removed, because they think they don’t deserve it.
And they are right. They are all right.
In the Middle Ages, and even in the early days of our own Republic, felony convictions were hanging affairs, and civil death statutes simply anticipated the impending corporal end. After the Civil War, felonies expanded to include many minor property crimes (Mississippi’s infamous “pig law” is illustrative), and prosecution became a convenient way of disenfranchising and re-enslaving the recently-freed black population.
In the late 20th century, the war on crime made conviction an industry, and reinforced status as punishment. These days, you don’t have to do anything particularly evil to be condemned to what sentencing scholar Nora Demleitner has called “internal exile.” The “felon” label now applies to more than 20 million Americans.
A journalist friend at the John Jay conference pointed out that “felon” is convenient shorthand, helpful for headlines, certainly evocative. How could I argue?
But labeling people as “felons” is also fundamentally at war with efforts to reduce the number of people in prison, to facilitate reentry, and to encourage those who have committed a crime, or even many crimes, to become law-abiding and productive citizens.
Social liberals and fiscal conservatives alike pay lip service to the supposed American ideal of second chances. But our language, like our law, points in the opposite direction. We have schooled ourselves to avoid other stigmatizing labels that in the past were used to distance mainstream society from ethnic and racial minorities, and those groups from each other, because we understood that labels function to distract and excuse us from the hard work of building community.
The word “felon” (and for that matter other less ugly but still degrading labels like “offender,” with or without the feckless prefix “ex-“) is no less dysfunctional. We can do better.
So, my journalist friend asked, what word can we use instead? What snappy alternative sobriquet can we give the headline writers to describe this class of people with a criminal record?
Perhaps there isn’t a single word, and perhaps that is precisely the point. We can say first that our brothers and sisters are people, then (if relevant) we can also say that they are people who have been convicted of a felony.
Skilled writers can find ways to avoid using words that are toxic. Even headline writers can be weaned from them. Journalists play a key role in advancing the cause of social justice, and they do it through the language they use.
It is time to junk the label “felon” and restock our language toolkit.
- “More Justice and Less Harm: Reinventing Access to Criminal History Records” - July 10, 2017
- National law reform proposal on collateral consequences - May 16, 2017
- Scholarship round-up II – two new articles by Jack Chin - April 13, 2017
- Restrictions on access to criminal records: A national survey - March 9, 2017
- When does the Second Amendment protect a convicted person’s right to bear arms? - September 20, 2016
- Law firm steps up to aid reentry - August 11, 2016
- What (if anything) does the Virginia voting rights decision tell us about the president’s pardon power? - July 24, 2016
- “Divergent moral vision” — Collateral consequences in Europe and the U.S. - July 19, 2016
- Collateral consequences: punishment or regulation? - June 23, 2016
- “Vermont sheriff risks his career by hiring a sex offender” - May 5, 2016