THE STIGMA OF BEING LABELED A VIOLENT OFFENDER

My brother Aaron, a violent felon, is neither my brother nor violent. The fact that these two descriptors aren’t technically accurate is basically irrelevant. In practice, they function as truth.

I was reminded of this last July when my dad called me from the county courthouse.

“How’d it go?” I asked, but I already knew it was bad news. If Aaron had been released, it would’ve been his voice on the line.

“The judge gave him 90 more days,” my dad said.

“But I thought—”

“Yeah, well. The judge agreed to that before she knew he was a violent felon.” He paused. “I saw her sentence a couple of guys to eight years. Young guys. He got lucky.” His voice was a tangle of sadness and anger and relief.

I’ve worked in criminal justice reform long enough that phrases like violent felon have largely been stripped of their emotional content. But this moment was personal, and hearing the term was jarring. For a second I thought my father must be talking about someone else.

An imprecise, capricious label handed down by the criminal justice system can mark a person for life.

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