The Washington Department of Corrections is phasing out the use of the word “offender” to describe convicted felons serving time behind bars.
Officials say the label has a negative connotation, so from now on DOC supervisors and staff must use words like “individual” or “student” or “patient” where applicable.
For those of us who work daily with words, the switch seems absurd.
Or should we say nonsensical, inane — maybe even outrageous or silly. Pick the word you like. Apparently, adjectives don’t need to be particularly precise any more.
Of course, we don’t really believe that — which is why the new DOC policy is difficult for us to accept.
Words have meanings and those meanings are rooted in reality. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, synonyms for the word “offender” include: felon, culprit, and crook, lawbreaker, criminal and outlaw.
Denying these terms and trying to use others with a more positive spin undermines our language. Why taint words like “student” and “patient” in order to avoid using a word with a straightforward definition?
Getting labeled with a term that has a negative connotation goes with the territory of breaking the law and getting caught.
However, we understand the compassion driving the ban on the word “offender.” This is an attempt by DOC officials to help inmates see themselves in a better light, and encourage them to improve their lives.
But this new policy goes so far as to try and deny why these lawbreakers are in prison to begin with. Using a different label is not going to change the reality that these inmates committed crimes and are in prison for a reason.
Sugar-coating that fact does not change it.
In addition, by trying to gloss over criminal behavior, the DOC is showing little regard for the pain and suffering of victims and their families.
One of the loudest critics of this new DOC rule is U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn. He is the former sheriff of King County and spent much of his law enforcement years tracking down Gary Ridgway, infamously known as the Green River Killer.
To think that a prisoner who admitted to killing 49 women can no longer be called an “offender” is appalling.
Reichert said Ridgway is not a “student” and that the state’s new policy “removes the whole idea of accountability and responsibility” and that the victims’ rights seem to be “brushed aside.”
He said there needs to be a focus on programs that prevent crime instead of “renaming prisoners with politically correct terminology.”
Of all the priorities the DOC should be addressing, trying to force a more positive name for felons serving time in prison is not one that should even be on the list.
There are those prisoners who want to put their past behind them and become law-abiding citizens when they finally return to society. They deserve a chance, and we hope there are programs in place to help them.
But calling them by a name that really does not fit fools no one.