Is ‘felon’ the new dirty word?

If government was required to generate 1,000 jobs for every new word it tried to insert in the cultural lexicon, we’d all be employed.

The Washington Post recently ran a guest column by U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who has headed the Office of Justice Programs since 2013. (And while we’re editing, how about reducing her seven-word job title?) In it, Mason said her agency will no longer use words such as “felon,” “convict,” “ex-con,” “prisoner” or “inmate” to refer to released prisoners.

U.S. Assistant AG Karol Mason 


It might hurt their feelings.

“No punishment is harsher than being permanently branded a “felon” or “offender,” Mason wrote. Really? Solitary confinement, hard labor, life without parole, or execution are not harsher than being called a “felon”?

As with so many other things, government shouldn’t be entrusted with our language either. Instead, Mason’s office will now refer to felons as “the person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated” or “justice-involved youth.” Leave it to federal employees to reduce this to a semantic thing.

That helps “decouple past actions from the person being described and anticipating the contributions we expect them to make when they return [to life outside of prison],” Mason said.

“The hundreds of thousands of people who come out of our prisons on an annual basis and the millions more who cycle through local jails need to hear that they are capable of making a change for the better. And with that message of inclusion, that we are holding them to the expectation that they become productive contributors to our communities’ safety and success,” Mason wrote.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch believes the justice system must help “formerly incarcerated offenders” to “find decent jobs and stable housing.” It’s all part of the Obama Administration’s effort to “remove barriers” for convicted criminals. In a 2015 executive order, Mr. Obama ordered federal hiring managers “to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.” The reason: “If disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process [ex-convicts are] more likely to be hired,” he said.

Is felony conviction a kind of life sentence? Is it the 21st century’s scarlet letter? Should society forgive and forget? Once a felon has paid his debt to society, should his label be expunged (even if his record is not)? Can government change mass attitudes by simply changing the words it uses to identify ex-cons? Will anyone using such words be branded a hater?

Today, there are about 2.8 million felons in American jails and prisons. About 47% are African Americans, so blacks are disproportionately affected by any policies or attitudes that make re-entry more difficult. I get that. In fact, 60% will return to prison within three years, and that is a frightening statistic.

Part of the problem is an economy that makes it hard for even law-abiding citizens to succeed, a legal system that discourages risk in hiring, and a government that is constantly layering more and more regulations on employers. And part might be racist attitudes—outside and inside the black community—about entitlement and privilege. Changing those things would be more effective than merely changing the language we use.

The debate about political correctness-run-amok is important. It’s about how we treat each other. The language we use is meaningful, even if the conversation goes off the rails occasionally. However, there’s a time for talk and there’s a time to act.

We don’t need [new] words. We need actions that make going straight easier. The road traveled by an ex-con is a rough one, and not the fault of the rest of society. Society has always scorned offenses against societal norms and laws, and a lame-duck government isn’t going to change human history. But it can begin to change some minds—not all—through real policies that give well-intentioned, earnest ex-offenders (and the rest of us) a chance.