By Christopher Zoukis
The Assistant Attorney General who runs the section of the Justice Department responsible for programs assisting the re-entry into society of released inmates recently took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to announce a policy change: her section will stop referring to the people it’s trying to help with terms such as “convicts,” “offenders,” or “felons.”
According to Karol Mason, who since 2013 has headed DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs, the change reflects the belief that such labels represent a psychological barrier to becoming reintegrated back into mainstream society.
In her May 4 op-ed, she voiced her view that labels attached to those who have done time in jails or prisons can “drain their sense of self-worth” and “perpetuate a cycle of crime” that prevents achieving the goals of re-entry. The changed terminology was not meant to condone past criminal behavior for which those responsible need to be held accountable, Mason wrote, but instead to make it easier for those who have repaid their debt to society by serving out their sentence to get on with rebuilding their lives.
While noting the American Bar Association’s criminal justice section has compiled a list of 46,000 obstacles to re-entry facing former inmates, Assistant Attorney General Mason says in talking with formerly incarcerated persons, she frequently hears there is no harsher punishment that being “permanently branded a ‘felon’ or ‘offender’.”
As a result, Mason said she had issued a directive telling employees to use care in how they refer to those trying to achieve re-entry, since the language used can influence how successful they are. So instead of terms like “felon,” “convict” or “offender,” more positive terms such as “individual who was incarcerated” or “person who committed a crime” would be used by the Office of Justice Programs in its speeches and written and electronic communications.
In her Washington Post article, Mason also expressed the hope that similar usages would be adopted by other agencies and groups. (Moore’s article was later amended to clarify that, despite her reference to having issued an “agency-wide policy,” the ordered change would only be mandatory in her Division, not in the entire Justice Department).
Not coincidentally, Moore’s article was published hard on the heels of National Re-entry Week, which the Justice Department declared for April 24-30, in the name of raising public awareness of the challenges faced by former prisoners.
Even before the change was announced, a similar controversy was bubbling in journalistic circles. Margaret Love, a former pardon attorney for DOJ and a veteran clemency lawyer, in a blog entry took to task the New York Times for using the term “felons” in the headline of its front-page story on Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe’s order ending disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners.
In response, Bill Keller, the former Times executive editor and the current editor-in-chief for the criminal justice-focused The Marshall Project conceded she probably had a point that casual use of such labels for such persons makes it more difficult for them “to assimilate and live within the law.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com