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

March 13, 2012 11:11:00 am
Comments (6)

By Margaret Colgate Love

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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Posted by anonymous
Monday, June 10, 2013 03:36

Or you could just ignore the whole felony thing all together and give the person a real chance. Of course, from this article here, one can guess that the writer is more interested in playing around with the idea of giving people a second change than actually wanting to do it. The same rhetoric seen on Fox News likely. I served my country (in the military I say), and got in trouble after I returned home. That does not make me a criminal. The change that happens in someone integrating into society has to happen within themselves. If they chose not to change, then they should further be labeled a “criminal” when they are in jail. After someone is released, I believe that all those names should never come up in the system again, however being the kind of country I served for, there is no forgiveness and only raw justice. This country loves labels and lives by them, not by actions. The haves and the have nots will continue to exist for as long as people let them. So, go back to your white picket fences and keep living like hermits.

Posted by Lynne
Thursday, April 12, 2012 10:21

I am in the social criminal justice bachelor of arts program in Ashford University studying and was very interested in your ideas and thoughts after released prisoners are integrated into our system. You mention you don’t want to work with felons and yet that is exactly what you do. What would the word be for ex-cons or ex-offenders in our society. I would think that our judicial system would come up with more help for integrating them into society. I am in for probation and parole officer for juveniles. I feel I can help them and nurture them before they hit the adult judicial system. Kids are kids and make mistakes and if they can learn to recognize their bad ways before acting on them, and thinking out the consequences through critical thinking skills, which should be taught early in school to help prevent adult criminals.I do believe in a more personal relationship with your probationers and parolees. One on one contact in a civilized situation such as a coffee shop or other less offical areas where they can learn to act appropriately in public surroundings can help integrate them too. Getting stauts back they may never get, it is to keep your status in good working order, and kids think of today not years to come when they need the education and the help and support from government services and community.

Posted by Loki
Saturday, March 31, 2012 10:11

Perhaps the problem isn’t calling dangerous criminals “felon”, but gross systemic injustices that convict the undeserving, and exempt many of the worst scofflaws? Most convicts suffer discriminatory mala prohibita, laws that define Constitutionally protected criteria rights as if crimes, to prop up sick religions or similar prejudices, or law for profit of the elite. We exempt prosecutors, cops, and judges, who routinely perpetrate malicious prosecutions, hide exculpatory evidence, and misrepresent if not outright perjure testimony, with near absolute immunity. We exempt mob bosses directing armed mercenaries in the threat or use of lethal force, those being legislators and many bureaucrats, often directing violations of rights in ways that sidestep judicial process. And, if we review Harvey Silverglate’s classic perspective, the average person perpetrates 3 felonies a day just under conflicted Federal laws. How many court officers aren’t guilty of thousands of felonies under just 18 USC 241 & 242, catch all civil rights crimes, even if AUSA’s selectively avoid those prosecutions, or courts hold themselves above the law? Full and complete enforcement, after ending archaic sovereign immunity as if by and for a king’s men, starting with the mob bosses and their mercenaries, would result in a change in meaning of “felon” to either reflect a just interpretation of dangerous criminals only, or a meaningless reference to nearly any and all of us.

Posted by Anna
Saturday, March 31, 2012 04:21

Thanks so much – agree with all that you say.

Posted by Steven Thompson
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 12:31

Why would you want to stop calling felons what they are?? They ARE felons!! They have committed a felonious act of breaking the law against someone or some thing. They have been convicted of the crime, so they ARE felons. You, the author of this story , I’m sure are a liberal left wing tree hugger. You and your “political correctness.” Political correctness is what has caused a LOT of the problems in America. People won’t call something or someone what it/they really are for fear of offending someone. The truth is the truth, no matter how you try to mask it. You said yourself in this article that you didn’t want to live or work around felons, so why do you have such a strong opposition to calling someone what they REALLY are? A person that has been convicted of committing a felony should be labeled what they are…A FELON!! THEY made a clear and conscious decision to commit the crime, so they get all the “perks” that go along with their action…one of which is being labeled a “FELON!” Just saying!!

Posted by Janet Fenner
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 12:27

Thank you for your support of those who are not just outcasts, but are unable to vote for five years following their release in Florida, thanks to Pam Biondi and our new governor.
Please keep up your good work.

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