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More Than Just a Felon: What should we call people with a criminal history — and why does it matter?

[Prison Fellowship]

What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?

Now imagine being known by that one mistake — regardless of what you’ve done to take responsibility or make amends. You have to write it on the top of every application for employment or housing you ever fill out — for the rest of your life.

Labels are powerful, and our society has plenty for people who have been through the criminal justice system and have the record to show for it: Felon. Offender. Convict. Criminal.

Even inmate casts a dark shadow in its rightful context. An inmate is just a number — identified by numbers on a uniform. Personhood is revoked. When we call people offenders and convicts, we identify them by what they have done, not by their basic human dignity.

But why does it really matter what people with a criminal history are called? It turns out that the labels aren’t primarily a matter of political correctness, but of public safety.

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