Why are the the labels “offender” and “ex-offender” so offensive?

Charlie Ryder has asked me to post this for him. As well as outlining why so many people are starting to feel uncomfortable with the term “ex-offender” he starts the tricky process of finding new terms to replace this one.

Steve

 

Why are the labels offender and ex-offender so offensive?

When I was released from prison in 1996, I had no idea that the label ‘ex-offender’ would be used against me for the rest of my life. In fact, it came to shape the hearts and minds of the many people who discriminated against me, as CRB checks saw my many application forms drop into HR dustbins.

I now run a mentoring scheme for people in prison. I believe it’s important to treat people the way you want to be treated. In my case that means unconditional love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and a non-judgemental attitude. I feel ‘ex-offender’ is a permanent label based purely on the worst thing you have ever done and I find it deeply offensive.

For some time now, I’ve been asking others whether they find the term ‘ex-offender’ as offensive as I do.

Performance poet Mr Gee runs poetry workshops in prison. He feels the term “ex-offender” sonically invites the listener to focus on the word “offender” – the past as opposed to the future. He says, “This creates a tragic cycle where the individual isn’t allowed to move on. The term “ex-offender” doesn’t aid the rehabilitation process. None of us would like to be judged by the lowest point in our lives.”

Members of an online forum provided by Unlock, a national charity for people with convictions have recently debated this issue. Executive director Chris Bath told me, “Some people feel ‘ex-offender’ is a powerful statement of where they’ve been and proudly take ownership of the term. But most just want to be referred to in the same way as everyone else; Charlie the playwright, Karen the criminologist, Steve the fantastic dad”.

Like me, Chris feels a change of language is critical if we are to tackle the life sentence of stigma attached to even a minor criminal record. He told me, “One Work Programme provider I spoke to recently referred to ‘PG9s’, a reference to the way claimants are categorised. People used to talk about ‘blacks’ and ‘gays’. It’s a dehumanising technique. If it is absolutely critical that we refer to the characteristic, we need to think in terms of people with convictions.”

Author, blogger and professional speaker Shaun Attwood summed it up like this, “Ex-offender – the word offender has too much negative connotation. Person with conviction is less dehumanising”.

Emilia di Girolamo is a TV scriptwriter and producer who spent 8 years running drama programmes in prison. She told me, “I love that term ‘person with conviction’. I actually love the double meaning. To succeed after prison you need real conviction because the odds are stacked against you. I shall start using it myself. It only takes a few people and eventually works its way into the mainstream.”

Filmmaker and PhD student Deirdre O’Neill questions the use of the label ‘offender’ even more fundamentally. She suggests that, “Before we use the word “offender’ to describe someone who is in prison we should unpack the meaning of this word when it’s applied in this context. What and who are prisoners offending?” She feels that prisoners, mostly from working class backgrounds and let down by the system, are the “casualties of capitalism, the homeless, the mentally ill, the politically angry, warehoused away and punished. Then they are called offenders.”

In January I attended ‘A Workable Revolution’, a conference organised by the criminal justice group No-offence!. Richard Branson recorded a video for the event in which he used the phrase, “people with convictions”. So perhaps Emilia di Girolamo is right – perhaps we have started a rehabilitation revolution of our own.

 

Charlie Ryder

 

14 thoughts on “Why are the the labels “offender” and “ex-offender” so offensive?”

  1. Great article Charlie.

    We (Unlock) have always tried to develop a shift away from focusing on ‘offender’. When we first started in 1999, the term ‘ex-offender’ was used to differentiate. Later on, around 2005, we re-branded to ‘reformed offenders’, a phrase which seems to have caught on in lots of ways.

    But, more recently, we’ve become uncomfortable with the phrase, and so recently have shifted to ‘people with convictions’. You’ll still see the phrase ‘reformed offender’ used in various places on our site, but we’re getting there.

    To many, the term is irrelevant. They feel (understandably) it’s more about what is done to help that matters. But, for some, it lies at the core of their identity. We’ll never find something that everyone agrees with I guess.

    Like

  2. I don’t disagree with most of what is said in this article about the labeling and stigma of people with ‘offender’ and ‘ex-offender’.

    However, I have a number of concerns about the discussion of tackling this stigmatization.

    I’m an ‘ex-offender’ this is the label given to me by the government and in particular the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, because of a previous serious criminal offence that is a non-spent conviction for life. Basically – I have a duty by law to tell whoever has the authority to ask the question ‘have I offended in the past’. Using simple logic my answer states I’m an ex-offender. Again using this logic, the task of ridding oneself of the label ‘ex-offender’ is impossible because of the current rehabilitative policies (CRB checks).

    Let me put this to you – it seems to me that a very important factor is missing from this whole discussion about labeling of people with ‘offender’ and ‘ex-offender’ – the victim of crime.

    If someone has been the victim of a crime, do you really believe ‘any’ government will allow that victim to understand that the ‘offender’ is no longer an offender, but ‘someone with a conviction’ – a conviction can be many things – I have a conviction for the love of life – I have many convictions (beliefs). I also have many convictions (offences).

    For me this whole exercise in coming up with new labels slaps the face of the victim, but also potentially gets in the way of redemption; you must first know your wrong to make something right. My own desistance narrative relied heavily upon me understanding my status and identity of being an ‘offender’ and being an ‘ex-offender’.

    I worry profoundly that this discussion, in particular of how the public and in particular victims of crime see this discussion. I have said many times too many people including the people involved in this project that I would not have an issue with label ‘ex-offender’ if when that conviction becomes spent – that then is the end of the label – the individual becomes whoever they wish to become.

    Having a non-spent conviction is part of the sentence given by the courts, it is also made clear by the courts (in some cases) that to have a non-spent conviction is part of the punitive sanction of the courts. At this point I will quote the Gardiner Committee in 1972:

    “Most civilised countries recognise that it is in their interests to accept back into the community a person who despite one or more convictions, goes straight for a sufficient number of years. For that reason a law may be necessary.”

    I will also now quote Bryan Breed (1989), bear in mind when reading this that when a conviction becomes spent the ‘ex-offender’ is now considered ‘rehabilitated’.

    “A Rehabilitated person should be treated for all purposes in law as someone who has not committed, or been charged with, or convicted of, or sentenced for, the offences concerned; accordingly, they should not be guilty of any offence, or liable to any penalty or adverse consequences, if that is what he says, and no evidence to prove the contrary should be admissible in any court unless he himself wants it given, or as part of his antecedents if he is later convicted on indictment.” (Breed, 1989, p.10)

    My point is this, the discussion is sadly missing the point in my view, if you are convicted of an offense and you are still in the grip of punitive sanction; you are either an offender or ex-offender. The focus should be put on the key of most convictions becoming spent, thus following the desire of Bryan Breed’s statement.

    Like

  3. Charlie, this is a really interesting piece.

    I agree that labelling people, especialliiy in the long term as an ex-offender, is not productive to aiding long term desistance and rehabilitation. However, it is indicative of someone’s progress and one would hope that it can help people feel proud of their achievements.

    It is unfortunate however, that ultimately the fact that someone committed an offence at some point in their life doesn’t change, and society does have to be mindful of the victim and the message it portrays to anyone considering committing an offence.

    I think stories like yours are so important in assisting people to go on and hopefully make decisions against offending.

    What term should we use instead? It is a difficult question isn’t it? And one that has long been debated in the world of probation. Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with a suitable alternative that acknowledges victim impact and future non-discrimination for people who have offended.

    Like

  4. Charlie

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. Firstly let me start by making it clear that I live in Dublin so I ain’t too clued in to British legislation. Nevertheless I cant help feeling that when we discuss these topics we are wasting valuable time and energy that could be better put to use in assisting those who seek to desist. You speak of ex offenders being replaced with persons with convictions, but I and many others are ex offenders without a conviction. I often feel that when some desistance scholar speak of ex offenders they really mean ex prisoners. Maybe thats just an inevitable consequence of accessing research participants within prison environments. I know from personal experience that many offenders never get caught, and many who go through court systems do not end up with convictions. So people like myself do not have to worry about a potential employer finding a conviction in a background check. But it aint that simple either because the need to explain a 12 year absence on a CV still remains, as does word of mouth. I hail from a well known family where my 4 siblings and I were all addicted to drugs, and some of my siblings were involved in very high profile criminal cases. Therefore stigma sticks. In my home community people see me as an ex addict and that label, if it is a label rather than a statement of fact, sits fine with me. In fact I have found it beneficial at times as I work with addicts and offenders, it has literally been the best asset I have had in my employment career thus far. Many of my friends and colleagues over the past decade in the wider community and voluntary sector are ex offenders, ex prisoners, ex addicts, etc. While it is obvious that there are professions where my past would work against me, it is equally obvious that there are some where it works in my favour. Therefore I truly believe that we are wasting our time debating these issues, really who cares? I sold drugs, I was violent, I offended for a long time: thats who I was and I did a lot of damage to my family and the wider community. If, as a result of my actions, I now have some label or other then so what, thats just life. Many terms we use in this field are imperfect, such as reintegration and reentry for example. Reintegration into what? The only systems that many offenders and prisoners were ever integrated into were networks of criminality and addiction, many have never been integrated into family, school, community. But we all know what reintegration means so why bother spending time debating the term or seeking a better term? The same goes for ex offender. Instead I believe we should stop worrying about the potential hurt feelings of offenders and prisoners (surely this is just the projection of our middle class values anyway) and focus instead on the real issues that they face, such as rampant drug addiction. What are the majority of criminal careers if not circular patterns of addiction? Yet the desistance literature and discussion is painfully short of input from addiction studies. It is my contention that crime is very often a side effect of drug addiction, therefore the process of recovery from addictiction is the most powerful tool for empowering the individual to deal with stigma and labeling. I think the focus on these kind of issues is the luxury of people like you and I who have been crime free for a long period. For those in prison, and other active offenders, they just want to know about how to stop using drugs, how to get access to their kids, how to get a decent place to live, what to do about their hepatitis or abscess, etc. So (just my view) lets not get sidetracked into some cultural Marxist wonderland, lets stay focused on the real issues that we exoffenders/ex prisoners/people with convictions/recovering addicts/whatever, face.

    Bren

    Like

    1. Brendan you hit the nail on the head in response to Charlie’s article – the discussion does waste valuable time and energy. These discussions often just become academic discourses, which is fine, but in the real world, make not an inch of difference. However it does offer organisations a PR exercise. Which plenty of people sadly gladly soak up. I enjoyed the part of your reply that illuminates the fact that people commit crime and do not get caught. I know scores of active offenders who rarely get caught, and also people who are career criminals that are rarely convicted for the majority of their crimes. I was one of those offenders, I committed hundreds of crimes but was only ever convicted for 22 – if we take on board what Charlie and Christopher Stacey argue, then I’m only an offender for 22 crimes, not the 47 crimes the courts took into consideration, and the hundreds I failed to TIC, or get caught for. We are making it too easy for offenders to not accept responsibility – whatever your reasons for doing a crime, you made a choice at some point. Taking away the rationality of choices and behaviors from most offenders is a dangerous path, that only serves some other agenda rather than the real issue in tackling offending and creating fertile minds for enabling desistance. I accept however that they are offenders, who are slaves to addiction, and is the motivating factor behind their crimes. Although my own experience is not one of addiction or necessity and the many scores of people I know, knew were all career criminals, that was our vocation, most of us had other opportunities and dismissed them for crime. We are lead to believe that most offenders are poor, uneducated, without life skills and unable to make rational decisions in relation to criminal behavior. Many of the offenders/ex-offenders I know, have businesses, mortgages, qualifications, and plenty of skills. The apologists need to take a better look at the realty of crime, and people who commit crime. Maybe then we will be able to make desistance from crime a more attractive option.

      Raymond

      Like

  5. I find these discussions fascinating. I have had a lot of ‘comparative discussions’ about this with friends and colleagues form all over the world in particular with ‘therapeutic jurisprudence’ networks and some of the people who regularly post on this excellent blog.
    I have recently written a comparative paper on the words used in probation which will soon – hopefully – be published in Eurovista.
    I usually do not present France as being an example of pretty much anything . But in this particular case it may be an example – and having interviewed Luisa Ravagnani from Italy I know Italy also may be called an example. In France no practitioner (judge, PO, prosecutor…) ever uses the word ‘offender” (délinquant). i would like to say that academics never use the term either but the truth is it depends on their background. I can safely say however that lawyers never use this term. We use legal labels such as ‘le prévenu” (meaning the person charged with something and awaiting trial) or ‘le condamné” (ie the person who has been sentenced) or ‘le probationnaire’ (that one’s easy: the probationer). The idea is to be legally descriptive and to refer the point in the legal process where the person is at, but not to use deprecatory labels. It also aims at implying that this status is transient and does not define the person. The person is still there and we’ll see what the next status shall be a free person or else. We also use ‘le détenu’ (‘the detained’) if the person is detained. Recently a prison law (Nov 2009) and its usual following decrees changed the entire penal procedure code’s references to ‘le détenu’ to ‘la personne détenue’ (the person who is detained’ – rather than the detained person = emphasis on person here). It was over the top complicated and at the time I wrote in legal publications that I would have preferred inmates to actually be respected and not to endure overcrowding and violence and still be called the detained than this formal change without any real life changes. Still…. words do count too.

    It does count and it can have huge legal consequences. for instance in his remarkable 1998 PhD thesis, my colleague Eric Péchillon, a specialist of French public law defended the idea that inmates were ‘public service users’. At the time this sounded extremely bold (and he, as us all legal lobbyist more or less were, endured severe consequences re his career) but 15 years down the line nobody denies this revolutionary label. Said label meant that an inmate was in the same legal situation or should be treated as such, a person dealing with the French railways or the National Postal services: that person had public user’s rights and could defend them in court. This had enormous consequences on administrative case-law.
    Later Péchillon and I argued that another law which concerned ‘citizens in their relations with administrations’ applied to prisoners as well, when the MoJ and the prison services said that ‘of course’ it did not. That other battle was won as well and the consequence was inter alia, the right to having an attorney during disciplinary hearings. That changed dramatically these hearings as one can imagine.
    I could quote other examples. Suffice to say that from the continental lawyer’s point of view, words are legal labels which carry with them legal consequences that can be extremely powerful.

    Like

  6. And having read other people’s comments I would also like to add that after the sentence has been served what really counts is whether it still appears in criminal records and whether employers can ask for them (please see the special ed of EJprob: http://www.ejprob.ro/index.pl/january_2011). Then it also depends on public opinion and how reintegrative a society is (Braithwaite’s 1989 shame and reintegration is a must read here). On this also I’d say France is haven compared to England. Again the Court of cassation did say that an offender was allowed to lie about his curriculum vitae to cover for his years out the workplace and I know for a fact that a lot of PO help probationers build up a fake cv! Of course this is Latin France where lying is not so bad if it serves a greater good. it might not be pro-social in the strict definition of the term, but Lies as a desistance ally man that’s a wonderfully provocative idea (and it would make a fun academic article title)

    Like

  7. It has been almost 14 years since my release, how long will I be considered an ex-offender or rehabilitated offender?

    Like

    1. The really important issue here Christopher is how you feel about being an ex-offender. And your own self identity – it’s important not to let the label dominate your identity or life, you know best who you are so therefore project who you want to be, and eventually that will be the dominant identity. All the best and good luck.

      Like

      1. It’s kind of difficult because everytime I apply for a job, as soon as they find out I have a criminal record, even though I am fully qualified, I get turned down.

        Like

  8. Christopher, this is the crux of the problem in terms of labeling, we need employers to view the label ‘ex-offender’ has a positive identity. Employers in the 21st century need workers who can adopt change, you would be surprised at how many actually find change very difficult. Ex-offenders offer employers some unique attributes. I was employed when I was released from prison form my first prison sentence, he was a family friend. However he employed may ex-offenders, when asked why, he said they work harder, and they have already made the mistakes, they usually don’t want to make them again once given a second chance. Compared to someone who has not offended yet or been caught.

    I fully appreciate your situation, I’m in the same boat, but I have also realised over the last two years I have played the victim somewhat, and have certainly projected this. Going back on my applications and CV’s I’ve used I can see the language applied is not confident. Lately after a frustrating six months, coming to a head at the end of the year I’ve challenged my own view. My confidence is increasing. My new work programme advisor has asked me to apply to be a work coach, which I will be doing next week.

    I don’t know your skills or who you are but Christopher if you want some help, I will certainly try, my e-mail is raymondlunn@gmail.com if you wish to discuss this further. Ex-offenders need to create this change in perception for employers to believe we are assets, not a risk. When I lied about my past I worked for several blue chip companies in the sales arena, I was promoted several times and made lots off money. For me personally ex-offenders are much more hungry for success than the average Joe. Also employers need to realise how loyal an ex-offender would be if they give them a chance, one of the reasons my former 1st employer use to employ mainly ex-offenders.

    Like

    1. I think it’s fair to say that people with convictions (or ex-offenders, depending on your perspective 🙂 ) generally take the chance that they’ve been given by an employer and show themselves to be hard-working and loyal.

      I guess one of the difficulties is that, at the moment, the empirical research, from employers themselves, is not as strong as it could be. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence.

      Like you say, one of the biggest challenges is to encourage employers to not automatically association people with convictions as being solely something that is negative.

      Like

  9. Our Australian aborigines have already worked out how justice is applied; if you were guilty they speared you in the leg, then they bandaged you up and brought you back into the community – price paid, justice served, and move on. I think they got it right.

    Like

Comments are closed.