Words matter because the meaning that we give words matters even more.
This is especially true of the words we use to describe each other, which is why it’s useful to have a discussion about the words we use to refer to those who have committed crimes, those who are currently incarcerated or are otherwise serving their sentences and those who have rejoined society at large.
And it’s why a recent decision by the state Department of Corrections to phase-out the use of the term “offender” in written policies and daily use shouldn’t be disregarded as another instance of “political correctness.”
Acting Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan, whose tenure ends Friday, met with a state Senate panel last week to explain the policy change he announced in November, as reported by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield.
In November, Morgan told agency employees in a memo that the term “offender” would be replaced in policies and other documents with terms more appropriate to circumstances, such as “individuals,” “students” or “patients.” Morgan also encouraged corrections officers to refer to those serving time by their names and remove “offender” from their communications and discussions with others.
At the time, and testifying before the Senate Law and Justice Committee last week, Morgan explained the term carries a stigma that can complicate work to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals and can reinforce stereotypes after they have served their time and are rebuilding lives in society.
“There’s a sense of permanence around the department labeling somebody as an offender,” he told senators on Thursday. “There’s no conclusion to the time that they are an offender.”
Similar policy charges are being discussed across the nation. In May, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who heads the Office of Justice Programs, wrote in a Washington Post commentary that her agency would no longer use the terms “felon” or “convict” to refer to released prisoners.
Mason wrote that the change in language did not condone criminal behavior or mean that people weren’t being held accountable for past actions.
“But accountability requires making amends, an objective that is much harder to achieve when a person is denied the chance to move forward,” she wrote. “The people who leave our correctional facilities every year have paid their debts. They deserve a chance to rebuild their lives. We, all of us, can help them by dispensing with useless and demeaning labels that freeze people in a single moment of time.”
Morgan’s change in state policy, which will be continued by Jody Becker-Green, the deputy corrections secretary who will become acting secretary of corrections on Friday, does not affect the use of the term for those convicted of sexual crimes. The term “registered sexual offender” is codified in state law and will remain in use.
One objection to the more general use of “offender” is that in the public’s mind the word has become closely linked to the term “sexual offender.”
That, in itself, might be a good argument to reserve the term for sexual offenses. State law has identified the need to require the registration of those who have committed sexual offenses and, after serving their time, are released into public life. Overuse of the term “offender” in a general sense could weaken its impact where we need it to identify sexual offenders.
Except for those sentenced to life in prison, the expectation is that some 95 percent of those who serve time will rejoin society. It’s why the state agency is called the Department of Corrections and why the state’s prison in Snohomish County is called the Monroe Correctional Complex.
Labeling someone as an “offender” — after a sentence has been handed down and the path to turn his or her life around begins — serves no purpose on that path to correction.