The U.S. Justice Department recently announced that they will no longer use the terms ‘felon’ and ‘convict’ because those terms are disparaging. Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason wrote “ I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration. . . . The labels we affix to those who have served time can drain their sense of self-worth and perpetuate a cycle of crime, the very thing reentry programs are designed to prevent."
Terminology does matter. But – aren’t we missing a bigger point? Would we have an issue with referring to a murderer or a rapist as a convict or a felon? Perhaps there are circumstances in which labels, even for them, are unhealthy – but the terminology, in those cases, would likely be a less significant issue. The real issue is that we’re creating felons and convicts by incarcerating people who should not be referred to as felons or convicts – because they should not BE felons or convicts.
Basic psychology – and common sense – tells us that linking a person’s entire identity to a negative act makes moving past that act more difficult. Amy Lee Coy, in her book, From Death Do I Part, states “ The best thing you can do for yourself as you struggle to give up an addictive habit and become healthy is to learn to feel you are worthwhile and good. And you need to practice feeling that toward yourself as often as you can. ” When we negatively label those with substance use issues or who’ve spent time behind bars, it does make it more difficult for them to have the confidence needed to turn their lives around, and to move past the negative event(s) that caused the criminal record and/or incarceration. The real issue is far greater than terminology. It’s the act of arresting, prosecuting and putting drug users behind bars, and then leaving them with criminal records that minimize opportunities for life.
How is it that, for the exact same action that the last three U.S. presidents have admitted to, individuals are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and jailed, with their lives put on hold for years, dealing with onerous probation requirements and stigma and lack of opportunities due to criminal records?
The War on Drugs shows enormous hypocrisy and teaches our children disdain for the law.
Barack Obama in his book Dreams from My Father stated that he “drank heavily,” “tried drugs enthusiastically,” and tried “a little blow when you could afford it.” In a 2008 interview, then Senator Obama, in response to a question about drug use, laughed and stated ‘I inhaled frequently . . . that was the whole point’. I appreciate his honesty – but the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs is painfully obvious when these comments are contrasted to the War on Drugs response to those doing the exact same thing – time locked in a cage and a criminal record that wipes out opportunity for a lifetime. George W. Bush was arrested for DUI at age 30 when his license was suspended for two years. He also allegedly stated in a taped conversation with a friend “I wouldn’t answer the marijuana question. You know why? I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried.” Bill Clinton’s admission to smoking marijuana was famously followed by his ‘I didn’t inhale’ statement. There have been allegations that Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton all experimented with cocaine.
Perhaps the good news is that, even if our children have drug histories, they may still become President. The bad news is that the continuation of the War on Drugs during the administrations of all of these presidents increases the chances that a child may end up a felon or an ex-con. To date, that has put a damper on career opportunities.
When terminology doesn’t feel right, perhaps it’s a clue that we’ve labeled – and treated – individuals poorly, and that changing the treatment is even more important than changing the terminology. It’s time to end the War on Drugs, rather than just talking about terminology.