The discussion started on the True Crime blog earlier this month, when Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason announced that the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs would no longer use terms such as “felon” or “offender” when discussing those who had served jail or prison time and been released. Some thought that was political correctness run amok.
Now the head of the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania, Secretary John E. Wetzel, is moving toward a similar policy for his entire statewide agency. He participated in a Washington Post Live panel earlier this year titled, “Out of Jail, Into Society,” in which he said, “I think it’s critical that we set these individuals up for success.” Here he blames himself for making that transition more difficult, in an essay he titled “I Am an Offender.”
By John E. Wetzel
Words count . . .
I’ve offended friends, family, co-workers, colleagues and even thousands of people I’ve never met. It happens embarrassingly often. Fortunately I’m not defined by my worst day or even by one of my “off days.” Nope, not me. I’m defined by the sum of my days and my title — Secretary of Corrections.
It’s high time that I extend this courtesy to others, which is why I’m embracing “people first” language for everyone — including those who committed a crime. Surely, the language we use more accurately defines us than it does those we seek to describe — and I need to be better.
Refraining from referring to those who have committed a crime as offenders, I do not excuse their behavior or minimize the impact they’ve had on those they’ve offended, nor do I disrespect victims, by respecting those who have victimized. Rather, I acknowledge the humanity of incarcerated individuals despite their damaging behavior, and, as importantly, acknowledge their capacity to change. After all, we, all of us, are invested in the future success of those who have committed crimes. We call our system the “corrections system,” and surely respect for humanity is an essential element of that.
So if we’re really going to embrace rehabilitation, then we can’t send re-entrants back home wearing a label that dehumanizes them – such as “offender” or “felon” or “ex-con.” They (and we) already know why they’re in our system. We add nothing by placing a label on a person’s chest that says, “Hello, I’m an OFFENDER” other than making an already daunting task next to impossible. Frankly, negative labels work against the expectation of success and are inconsistent with what we’re trying to achieve in our corrections policy: less crime and fewer victims. Assisting those who have committed a crime with walking a path of restoration furthers that goal. It makes us safer and makes us better.
Think about it. One of the definitions of the word “offend,” means “to cause pain.” While acknowledging that those who have committed a crime have caused pain, mustn’t we also acknowledge the path to less communal pain is the transformation of these same individuals? If labels don’t further THAT goal, then we have no business using them.
Because words count …
They count when we say “You’re a failure” or “I love you” or “You are smart” or “You are worthless.” They also count when we say “I respect your humanity, and I believe in your capacity to change.” Proper word choice leads to proper practice, which leads to better outcomes, less crime, and a better us.
When we create an inspirational narrative, that also has a positive effect. So I won’t keep using words that impede our goals. I know that words have the power to create significant change. The impact from words can be painful and damaging or positive and elevating. As for me, I will be less of an offender. I will be cognizant of my word choices and the subsequent impact that they have.
If I must choose a word to describe these individuals, I choose “reentrant,’’ a term that will be adopted in our system.
I was first challenged to think about this by my colleague, Doug Burris, the Chief U.S. Probation Officer, who spoke about the term “offender” and how it’s inconsistent with expecting success. More recently, Nancy La Vigne from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center and the Colson Task Force, asked me to read and consider what she wrote about using “People First” language. Last, Cynthia W. Roseberry, of the Clemency Project 2014 and the Colson Task Force, challenged me to understand that the path to redemption really starts with valuing an individual’s humanity and validating their hope for a second chance and only then can we achieve our goal to lower recidivism.
At the end of the day, everything they said is consistent with the direction we’re headed. Absent a value shift, corrections reform will always come up short.
Consider this a value shift.
I want my marker — my legacy — to meet football coach Herman Edwards’s imperative, that “our words and our life match.” A truism is that once a word is said, it can’t be taken back, much like the effect wine has after being spilled on a white shirt, a stain that …
We all have a choice to make. Me? I’ll choose to elevate. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” Let’s all walk out of this shadow together.
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Here is Wetzel speaking at the Washington Post panel in February called “Out of Jail, Into Society,” moderated by Post reporter Wesley Lowery: