How terminology affects the cycle of recidivism

Labeling someone as an "offender" can actually cause more harm than good

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, written in a personal capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, or any other governmental agency.

I often find myself struggling with the concept of using cognitive behavioral intervention (CBI),yet most of our society still labels anyone under community supervision an "offender." Many community corrections agencies identify their “clients” as “offenders;” however, this practice is counteractive to the overall goal of successful behavioral modification. Labeling and shaming theory is quite common and known throughout the mental health field, yet it doesn't appear to have crossed over into the community corrections side of the world.

Labeling someone as an “offender” can actually cause more harm than good. If we constantly tell an individual that they are a failure, eventually they will simply give up, and they will believe they are a failure. Individuals convicted of a criminal act are immediately branded by the social stigma of being labeled as a criminal. This creates extreme challenges for the individual due to the fact that many employers will not consider hiring someone with a criminal record.  Once the judicial system hands down a sentence involving community supervision, individuals are immediately faced with two major barriers that can prevent their successful completion of the terms and conditions of probation. Unfortunately, in many cases, these barriers can often follow an individual relentlessly for the remainder of their life.      

The goal of community corrections is to break down barriers, to assist individuals with changing their mindset and getting them to “buy in” to the fact that they can make it through their supervision successfully. Officers spend hours trying to break down defensive walls during the first few interactions with an individual that has been placed on supervision. It only takes a few moments to destroy all of that hard work an officer has done, and put the client back on the defense again.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

One way officers can try to avoid facing additional barriers is to consider changing the terminology commonly used that is associated with offenders. The National Institute of Corrections has suggested replacing the labeling terminology by referring to those under supervision as “justice involved individuals.” Other options available would be to use the term client; many believe that this option is too soft and makes it appear as if an officer is working as a paid service provider for those under supervision.

Yet another option would be to replace offender with “probationer.” This term appears to be more aligned with temporarily labeling someone as being associated with the criminal justice system.,The label can also be removed once supervision has been completed successfully. The entire process of changing a word is easier said than done, as it requires a cultural change within an entire organization.

Undergoing the drastic change from strictly enforcing court ordered sanctions (old school supervision) to the implementation of evidence based practices (EBP) is a tough pill for anyone to swallow. As I sit back and reflect over the past few years, I can say I have seen a dramatic change in how officers are conducting business. Some have bought into EBP while others are still clinging on with a death grip of the "old school" way of life. Data shows that making the change, and utilizing EBP is successful. Not just in my state, but all across the country.

However, I keep finding myself coming back to the same question. How can we truly change behavior without changing the title of someone currently under supervision? Are we not holding the double edged sword by calling everyone that walks into the office an offender? We spend hours upon hours providing just the right amount of dosage that will statistically reduce recidivism, and help to improve not only society in general, but improve the way of life for that particular individual, or offender.

Then, after spending all of that time using skills practice, treatment and other interventions to break down barriers, we still refer to that individual as an offender. It might not be directly to the individual, but it might be used in the hallway of the probation office, or while talking with coworkers next to a cubicle or office where another officer is attempting to conduct a quality contact. It just seems counterproductive to label everyone an offender.

Is it appropriate to blanket label everyone under court ordered supervision the same thing? What about those that made a poor choice and it is their first time ever being involved with the system? Are they truly an offender? 

I'm curious to know how others feel about this concept. I was so curious in fact, that I took the time to reach out to every community corrections agency in the U.S. to determine what they label those under supervision. I'm still gathering the results, but I can say that at this point there's close to 80 percent of the country that still uses the word offender. I expect that number to rise as the data continues to arrive. 

What are your thoughts on this topic? What terminology would you suggest? Lastly, if change was to be implemented, how would an agency effectively introduce that change through the rank and file?

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