What’s In a Name? A Lot, When the Name is “Felon”

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At a recent conference of journalists at John Jay College, I raised an issue I have about language in the media: the frequent use of the word “felon” to describe a person who has been convicted of a crime.

One recent example, in a Washington Post story this month, is headlined: “Erhlich plans law school clinic, training program for felons seeking pardons.”

“Felon” is an ugly label that confirms the debased status that accompanies conviction. It identifies a person as belonging to a class outside many protections of the law, someone who can be freely discriminated against, someone who exists at the margins of society.

In short, a “felon” is a legal outlaw and social outcast.

But the word “felon” does more work than that. It arouses fear and loathing in most of us. I confess that it arouses those visceral feelings in me. I do not want to live or work around felons. I do not want to socialize with them.

The word “felon” conjures up images of large, scary people (men, of course) whose goal in life is to steal my things and hurt me, the staple weekend fare on MSNBC. Affixing an “ex-” changes nothing. Felons deserve a wide berth and whatever opprobrium they get.

I make a living representing people who have been convicted of a crime. They are, for the most part, very interesting and thoughtful people who have a great deal to offer society. In many cases, it is precisely their experience in the criminal justice system that has made them this way.

So it is hard for me to think of my clients as “felons.” And yet that is the label they must bear, in the workplace, in their communities, and in society at large. It is an unhelpful label and in many cases it is deeply unfair. My clients come to me because they hate the label, because they want it removed, because they think they don’t deserve it.

And they are right. They are all right.

In the Middle Ages, and even in the early days of our own Republic, felony convictions were hanging affairs, and civil death statutes simply anticipated the impending corporal end. After the Civil War, felonies expanded to include many minor property crimes (Mississippi’s infamous “pig law” is illustrative), and prosecution became a convenient way of disenfranchising and re-enslaving the recently-freed black population.

In the late 20th century, the war on crime made conviction an industry, and reinforced status as punishment. These days, you don’t have to do anything particularly evil to be condemned to what sentencing scholar Nora Demleitner has called “internal exile.” The “felon” label now applies to more than 20 million Americans.

A journalist friend at the John Jay conference pointed out that “felon” is convenient shorthand, helpful for headlines, certainly evocative. How could I argue?

But labeling people as “felons” is also fundamentally at war with efforts to reduce the number of people in prison, to facilitate reentry, and to encourage those who have committed a crime, or even many crimes, to become law-abiding and productive citizens.

Social liberals and fiscal conservatives alike pay lip service to the supposed American ideal of second chances. But our language, like our law, points in the opposite direction. We have schooled ourselves to avoid other stigmatizing labels that in the past were used to distance mainstream society from ethnic and racial minorities, and those groups from each other, because we understood that labels function to distract and excuse us from the hard work of building community.

The word “felon” (and for that matter other less ugly but still degrading labels like “offender,” with or without the feckless prefix “ex-“) is no less dysfunctional. We can do better.

So, my journalist friend asked, what word can we use instead? What snappy alternative sobriquet can we give the headline writers to describe this class of people with a criminal record?

Perhaps there isn’t a single word, and perhaps that is precisely the point. We can say first that our brothers and sisters are people, then (if relevant) we can also say that they are people who have been convicted of a felony.

Skilled writers can find ways to avoid using words that are toxic. Even headline writers can be weaned from them. Journalists play a key role in advancing the cause of social justice, and they do it through the language they use.

It is time to junk the label “felon” and restock our language toolkit.

Margaret Love served as U.S. Pardon Attorney in the 1990s, and now represents people seeking restoration of rights and status. She welcomes comments from readers.


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