The Washington Post has published an op ed by a top Justice Department official responsible for grants and contracts announcing that her agency* will no longer use labels like “felon” and “offender” to describe people who have a criminal record. Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who heads the Office of Justice Programs, said that she had recently issued “an agency-wide policy directing our employees to consider how the language we use affects reentry success.”
I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration. 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.
This is terrific news, and comes on the heels of a thoughtful editorial by Bill Keller of The Marshall Project proposing that journalists ought to make an effort to avoid disparaging language:
[W]ords that not long ago were used without qualms may come to be regarded as demeaning: “colored,” “illegals.” “Felon,” which makes the person synonymous with the crime, is such a word. Likewise “convict.” I’m less troubled by words that describe a temporary status without the suggestion of irredeemable wickedness — “inmate” and “prisoner” and “ex-offender” — but ask me again a year from now.
Ms. Mason’s piece explained further:
This new policy statement replaces unnecessarily disparaging labels with terms like “person who committed a crime” and “individual who was incarcerated,” decoupling past actions from the person being described and anticipating the contributions we expect them to make when they return. We will be using the new terminology in speeches, solicitations, website content, and social media posts, and I am hopeful that other agencies and organizations will consider doing the same.
Interestingly, the Post editor either didn’t read Ms. Mason’s piece or didn’t agree with it, since the paragraph introducing it used the word “convict” twice. I guess it just takes time.
*A note at the bottom of the op ed explains that Ms. Mason’s new policy applies only to OJP and not to the Justice Department as a whole.