Josh H

Mar 23, 2019

8 min read

Evolve: Stop Using the Other “F” Word

Pease Stop calling people “Felons”

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I was getting tired of turning on the television every night only to hear yet another pundit describe another HUMAN BEING as a “convicted felon.”

But Josh? The dictionary definition is “someone who committed a felony?”

First, that means you are defining someone — entirely defining them — by ONLY a crime they committed…That is NOT okay.

Second, the superstructure of mass incarceration rests on the language that justifies treating human beings as objects of ‘deserved’ punishment. The word “felon” is the handshake between society and the carceral state justifying stripping people of their human dignity.

Third, the press sells papers by ratcheting up fear. One of the ways that they do that is by reducing someone into a monstrous other. Use of the word Felon plays a huge role in this process.

Finally, there is a racialized history of the term:

So, anyway, as a result of my feelings in this area, three days ago I asked Twitter a question:

How Twitter Responded

It would have taken way too long to embed all of these as tweets, but here are the responses:

Stigma and identity erasure! @skinnyawkward

It defines people by their actions. Always wrong. People are way more than their mistakes! @thenickviveiros

There is no need to stigmatize people who have paid for and learned from their mistakes. We are all human and capable of making mistakes. What would change about this world if we practiced empathy instead? @myfanaccount280

It doesn’t actually describe anything because so many different types of actions can have a person labeled a felon. @thehandsomezach

It dehumanizes individuals and allows for legalized discrimination in all sectors of life @AbolitionistLC

It reduces an individual to a moment in time and extends that label associated with the act sometimes to the grave and beyond. People lose incentive to meaningfully participate in societywhen they are viewed as subhuman. Which is exactly what Jesus would want. @NicolasD1977

power of life and death is in the tongue and we have allowed labels to define the rights, privileges, and protections of millions.@AbolitionistLC

Social connotation equivalent of evil. @WoodsAinsley

Its stigma comes in part from an assumption that crime conviction necessarily connotes crime commission. Problematic. @ProfARoberts

When I hear the word felon….I’m just sure that I am fixing to get cut out of an opportunity……I’ve worked really hard for 15yrs to get away from the black cloud that hangs around that word. I’ve done pretty good too!! #hardworkgetsyoueverywhere @lou_lou_64592

It names a person as the worst thing that they have done. @Djuna22

Its etymology comes from an old French word that means someone treacherous, wicked, or evil. And it still carries all of those connotations. Those are not words we should be using to describe whole groups of our neighbors and fellow human beings we’ve never met. @amyep9

It’s a legal finding, not a truth. A system’s label based not in actual fact or truth but in the finding of a so-called (biased, flawed)fact-finder(s). It defines nothing outside of the dysfunctional system in which it’s used. @sarajanebaldwin

The meaning has been watered down to where it is divorced from moral failing. A felon could be a murderer or someone who tore a tag off a mattress, but we are supposed to hate and fear that person and not give them a job. @jdruva41

Because what happened to a person on what may have been the worst day of their life, should not define them forever. It belies the concept of rejuvenation. @MyRebuiltLife

Another effed up label created to do harm @PrisonReformMvt

It removes the humanity from the person & assigns a label that is intended to negate all their other characteristics. We don’t refer to every person who has made a mistake as “mistakes”, but yet we do that when we use the word felon to describe someone who has committed a felony. @DRMCNJ

It characterizes past conduct and fails to take into account redemption @DSafavianEsq

As an ESE teacher, person first language is important to me. It’s a “student with a disability” not a “disabled student “. The word felon focuses on a problem, not a person. The person behind the word disappears @FeralKarma

Goes back to your question on why I hate the word and its creating a class of people called felons. Once you’re a felon, it is open season for anyone to profit off your misery @MisterTimmr1

the word “felon” assumes people are unable to change. it assigns a concrete & static dehumanizing identity to human beings, even though science, common sense, and amazing human examples have proven that people have the capacity to change @thejuryroomblog

People change, the word doesn’t which in turn fails to accurately describe a person @Skipease

The word not only defines a person by their absolute worst action, it carries the weight of everyone else’s worst actions as well. A huge burden is wrapped up in that one little word @endtheregistry

If someone calls me a “felon” they believe implicitly that I cannot change and that is how I should be described. If someone says I committed a felony, they believe I have been Redeemed and Restored. Viewing me as the New Person @DavidLeegarlock

Because I want to change. I *have* changed. But the language that society uses to refer to me denies that basic fact. We want people to change, right? Why does our language preclude that possibility? @G_Padraic

I feel more stigmatize on my criminal history than I do my SUD. Also, who wants to be judged by the worst moment of their life — by everybody in Society for the rest of their life @icmyserenity

Yep. To paraphrase @gwenwillis in a push for person-first language, why do we insist on calling people something we don’t want them to be? @ADPerillo

I know it has been said already, but, no person should be defined by their past. We all have broken the law, just that “felons” got caught. This is not a country of second chances or the land of the free. I’m glad I’m in my 50s. I figure I have 20 years of this BS left @HOOKSCAR

It’s the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt relates to actions. Shame relates to one’s feeling about oneself. (Not my original thought. I read everything @BreneBrown has to write.) @myfanaccount280

It doesn’t provide context for how this came to be. People are a sum of their experiences and this is only one. We all have the potential to end up in that one situation but it separates people to allow others to believe they are superior @leannamichellem

Having worked with ex-felons, I can see the doors to redemption and rehabilitation are closed at every corner @MrMarty2000

It’s definition has become to be like the words Kleenex or Formica, i.e., with coupons and returns I bought a 100$ leather jacket for 5$. My mom called me a felon….@HeidiLucken

The word “Felon” attaches the crime to the character of the person. It is dehumanizing. Alternatively, it’s preferable to use “people convicted of a felony” because it opens with the most important piece of information; that “people convicted of a felony” are, in fact, people @oad_nyc

The stigma that is attached to the word felon is carried throughout a persons day to day life, limiting them from obtaining employment, the right to vote, the right to sit on a jury, and the right to posses a firearm just to name a few @anazelayaaaa

It is one of the many words we use to dismiss people as people. Felons “deserve” no good job because they’re felons. I hate it the same as how people dismiss the unborn, the elderly, the infirm, and the homeless. All are talked about as things, out of sight and out of mind @FascBear

Simple: It’s a label that affects not only how society treats people, but oftentimes, how those people feel about themselves @Hammy704

Felon by itself is loaded with a history of ideological stigmas, myths, and racial/class assumptions. This makes it a simplistic derogatory way to other people. Saying people who have been convicted of a felony, sounds very different, and it means “felon” @DarrenMack718

The word felon implies that you do nothing more than commit felonies. It automatically makes people look at you different and leads them to draw unfounded conclusions. Simply put it makes you less than human @CaptainCrazy254

It’s a crude shorthand used to further dehumanize and marginalize persons to stoke populist fears and deflect attention from systemic injustices @nikosleverenz

No person is a single act or misdeed. We all have things we wish we could change about ourselves & our pasts. Calling someone a felon is making them less than, unworthy of human dignity, & defines their entire life by their worst moment in time @Vince524

On top of everything else, it’s a word that means very little (covers wildly variable offenses across & within jurisdictions; some states don’t even bother making a distinction between misdemeanors and felonies) & yet connotes such severe & permanent stigma & material consequence @ElSKuhn

Stigma, how it hurts my clients, collateral consequences, …@amandarbirman

It paints a very strong and unfavorable picture of who a person was in a specific moment in time, instead of what they could be without the negative label @laulaurlaurie

The root word “fel” is from Old French meaning “evil” @orisanmi

Agreeing with the sentiments on this thread. Use of the term “felon” is something of, sadly, a socially accepted way of calling someone a “criminal”- the use of which is a disrespectful manner to address anyone @trials_n_tribs

Call To Action

The “carceral state” is hanging on by a thread, as more and more people — as many as one in every two people has a family member who has been incarcerated — are sucked into our criminal justice system the credibility of the system becomes less and less credible and change becomes more and more likely.

Or, as famed criminologist Vincent Schiraldi put it on my podcast a few weeks ago:

In order for things to change, we all have to take a stake in making change happen. I am asking that people call out people in the press whenever they reflexively use this term. Call them out on social media, send them letters, call their stations, leave criticism in the comment sections…whatever you do, do not let the use of the other “F” word go unchallenged.

It might feel great to see someone you don’t politically approve of referred to as a ‘convicted felon’ but that label doesn’t just affect, for instance, a Paul Manafort it also affects the millions of other people with felony backgrounds.

Josh is the host of the Decarceration Nation podcast and is a blogger and freelance writer who writes about criminal justice reform, television, movies, music, politics, race, ethics, and more.