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May 26, 2016 11:46 am

Drop ‘felons’ from your vocab

Pennsylvania is recognizing the impact of terms like "offender" to describe citizens returning from prison. Here's Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel's Washington Post op-ed.

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(Photo by Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski, used under a Creative Commons license)

The words we use to describe people coming home from prison have a direct impact on the way the public perceives them and the way they perceive themselves.

The state of Pennsylvania is saying so, as they are dropping the terms “offender,” “felon” and “ex-con” when describing individuals with criminal records in their official communications. The move follows a national trend galvanized by the Justice Department announcing upcoming changes to terminology surrounding incarceration earlier this month.

The system of corrections, despite its flaws, is supposed to correct and rehabilitate. So why isn’t that being reflected in the language we use to describe people who pass through it?

“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,” writes Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel in a Washington Post op-ed. “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.”

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Words count, Wetzel writes. They’re used to build the narrative we tell around individuals passing through the system of corrections.

That’s especially important when we’re talking about employment opportunity for returning citizens. How many employers will want to hire an individual society has labeled an “offender?”

“We’re talking about America here, where you’re defined by what you do,” said William Cobb, founder of advocacy organization REDEEMED earlier this year. “If you ask somebody what they do and they don’t have a response to that, they don’t feel good about themselves. You feel separated. You feel like a second- or third-class citizen.”

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