OLYMPIA —The state Department of Corrections plans to stop referring to the men and women serving time behind bars as “offenders.”
Acting Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan told agency employees in a memo Tuesday the word will be replaced in policies and programs with terms such as “individuals,” “students” or “patients” depending on the circumstances.
And he encouraged corrections officers to call those serving time by their names and “practice replacing or removing the word ‘offenders’ from your communication and presentations to others.”
“Unfortunately, what starts as a technical term, used to generically describe the people in our care, becomes and is enforced as a stereotype,” he wrote. “As a stereotype, ‘offender’ is a label that impacts more than the person to whom it is applied.
“This label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as ‘offender families’ and ‘offender employers or services,’ ” he wrote.
His decision comes amid a national conversation among correction officials on how the use of certain terms can make it difficult for a person to reintegrate in society upon completing their prison term.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason announced in May the federal Office of Justice Programs would no longer refer to released prisoners as “felon” or “convict.” Instead, terms like “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated” would be used.
Morgan’s decision to tackle terminology in Washington elicited some push back Thursday from those who assist victims of violent crimes and their families, as well as prison workers, worried corrections officials will forget why those inmates are locked up.
Corrections department spokesman Jeremy Barclay said the change won’t be immediate. As existing policies come up for review, the term will be removed, he said.
“It is a gradual change in philosophy” with an overarching goal of helping individuals achieve a successful re-entry into society after completing their sentences, he said.
“Rather than use a term that could be offensive or could lead to a stereotype, let’s use a term that can point to a different future for that person who is working to rehabilitate,” Barclay said. “Ninety-five percent of these individuals will be people living next to other people in the community.”
The term won’t disappear completely as registered sex offenders will still be identified in that manner.
“That won’t change. They will be known as a registered sex offender,” Barclay said. “That is codified in law.”
Senior staff for Gov. Jay Inslee were made aware of the change but the governor had not been briefed as of Thursday, according to Jaime Smith, his executive director of communications.
Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, who serves on the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said Thursday he had not heard of Morgan’s announcement.
“I want to find out what is the justification, what correctional officers think and what do families of victims of violent crimes feel about it,” he said. “It’s kind of odd. What are you going to say? What is the correct terminology?”
Marge Fairweather is executive director of the Everett-based Victim Support Services. Founded in 1975, the nonprofit is the oldest victim advocacy agency in the state.
She takes exception to language in the memo in which the corrections secretary used the term “people in our care” to describe inmates.
“Are they really in your care or are they in your custody?” she said. “It seems they are trying to soften the impact of what the individual has done.”
To Fairweather, they are still serving time for an offense they have committed. That makes them offenders while they are in the prison system.
“At the end of the day, they have victimized someone and they have offended someone’s rights,” Fairweather said. “Why not call it what it is?”
Teamsters Local Union 117, which represents state corrections workers, argues that there are more pressing issues than the semantics behind the word offender.
“We would like to see DOC spend at least as much time on improving staff safety and security as on issues like this one,” said Paul Zilly, a union spokesman. “Our priorities are staff safety, a comprehensive audit of staffing levels at the DOC, and making sure our contract gets funded by the state Legislature.”