MY INITIAL reaction to Mayor Nutter's executive order to start referring to ex-offenders as "returning citizens" was admittedly more visceral than intellectual.
Pfft . . . Not another executive order, I thought. Somebody hide the pen. That man, who has issued close to 60 in his time in office, is clearly EO-happy.
These ex-co . . . I mean, ex-off . . . I mean, returning citizens aren't exactly disembarking a Carnival Cruise from the Bahamas here. They're coming off long prison stints, sometimes after years in the hole, and rejoining a world that's hard enough for citizens with no record, let alone long criminal ones.
Pfft . . . Might as well hand them a coupon for 10 percent off a Wawa hoagie or one free Yuengling at participating pubs.
From where I sit, that's how empty a gesture this was for the 300,000 ex-offenders in Philly. Sixty percent of ex-offenders are still unemployed a year after they get out. (OK, given that, the free beer might help.)
Pfft . . . But then, that's easy for me to say. As important as I think issues of incarceration and rehabilitation are, I'm not burdened with the stigmas that come with serving time behind bars. And although some of the formerly imprisoned men and women I talked to also balked at the rebranding, many weren't as quick to dismiss its potential impact.
"Something is better than nothing," said Colwin Williams, who served more than 18 years in prison for multiple armed robberies. Williams, whom I've written about since his 2012 release, says that for people who've been stigmatized by a prison system that's been more about punishment than rehabilitation, this change could soften negative perceptions.
"It's not unlike the change in mind-set that came from going from Negroes to blacks to African-Americans," he said. "It's an opportunity to further educate people, to re-educate. By calling someone an ex-convict as opposed to a returning citizen, you make him feel like he's not part of society, and where does that leave him, where does that leave me?"
"Language matters. First impressions matter," said Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder, who has made criminal-justice reform a priority, was in Philly on Tuesday to highlight an impressive federal court re-entry program.
"It's all part of a process, part of a continuum whereby using different terms, it changes how we view people," Holder said. "But then that's backed up by the kinds of programs that we have seen here in Philadelphia. Where we put substance between that whole effort of how we think about people coming out of the system."
And Philly isn't the first city to scrap the ex-offender label. Last year, the District of Columbia unveiled its newly named Mayor's Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. It also held a Returning Citizens Community Appreciation Day.
Joseph Young, a graduate of the re-entry program who is now an EMT, said that when people get out of prison, there is a tendency to want to blame others for not being able to make it. If changing the term changes perceptions, he said, it's one less excuse.
"In a sense, it signals to the world that we're rejoining, that we're better, that we're ready to do better," Young said.
I get that, and I mostly agree. But then, not a day passes when I don't hear from someone in prison, or fresh out, who is struggling to find housing and a job, not to mention a little respect for doing their time and wanting to become a productive member of society.
Philadelphia is doing a better job than other cities with programs like the federal court system's Supervision to Aid Re-entry, the "Ban the Box" law that prohibits a job application from asking about a criminal record and even the mayor's newly renamed Office of Reintegration Services. But there's just not enough opportunity for ex-cons, ex-offenders or returning citizens, no matter what we call them.
That was apparent at a spring job fair- where so many ex-offenders showed up, they had to reschedule the event. And it's apparent in my conversations with Williams, who more than a year after walking out of prison is still trying to make it on the outside.
Williams needs a full-time job. Anybody want to help this returning citizen out?
On Twitter: @NotesFromHel