Titles and labels serve an important role in modern society. It is unlikely anyone would submit to surgery to someone who didn’t respond to the title “doctor,” and few of us would let anyone touch our finances if they didn’t have the initials “C.P.A.” after their name. “Professor” lets people know the person talking is an expert in his or her field, and parents teach their kids to look for a police officer if they ever find themselves in trouble.
But for those who bear titles like “ex-con,” “felon,” or “offender,” that identification can serve as a hindrance to moving forward in life, even when that chapter has been closed and the price paid for their past indiscretions.
The Office of Justice Programs, an agency of the Department of Justice, has recently announced that it will no longer use terms like “offender” or “felon” when describing former prisoners, instead opting to use terms like “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated.” In both of those cases, the humanity of the individual is emphasized, instead of making what was likely the worst moment of their life the identifying factor.
In a guest post for the Washington Post, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who oversees hundreds of reentry programs nationwide as the head of the Office of Justice Programs, explains the reason for the policy change. “I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration,” Mason says. “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. In an effort to solidify the principles of individual redemption and second chances that our society stands for, I recently issued an agency-wide policy directing our employees to consider how the language we use affects reentry success.”
Of course, there are many more obstacles that men and women leaving prison must face in order to be productive, wholly integrated members of their communities, but a good first step on that path is to assure them of their innate, God-given worth, and to treat them with the honor and respect we would want for ourselves. Such a simple act can help these people see themselves as more than the sum of past actions, and can transform the way others see and interact with them. It offers a second chance to make a first impression, and chance to create a new title for themselves.
The Second Prison Project works to unlock second chances for men and women who have paid their debt to society and want to contribute to their communities. To learn more about the Second Prison Project, visit www.secondprison.org.