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FSU Study Explores Effects of Felon Labels

A recently published study by researchers at the Florida State University school of Criminology shows that convicted felons have higher rates of recidivism, or re-offending, when they are officially and legally labeled as such. This could have significant impact on legal strategy if applied to courtroom policy.

The researchers studied nearly 96,000 convicted felons, following them for two years after their felony convictions. For the purposes of the study, the researchers considered only new felony convictions (and not, for example, violations of the terms of parole) as second offenses. The results were interesting and sometimes surprising.

Background – Labeling of “Felons” in Florida

In Florida, judges have the choice whether or not to withhold the official label of “felon” for some offenders. Those who are labeled can be identified by potential employers, bank managers, landlords, etc. Those who are not labeled have no apparent difference from non-convicted individuals.

The study sought to determine whether the “convicted felon” label affected the likelihood that someone would be convicted of another crime. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes.

This basic fact may not be surprising: for those who are labeled felons, getting hired for a job is more difficult than for those not labeled. When legitimate employment is impossible to come by, earning a living by illegal means may be the only option. Eventually, being convicted for another felony is almost unavoidable.

The breakdown of the groups affected by the “felon” label, though, is a bit less intuitive.

Breakdown of Labeled and Unlabeled Felons by Race and Sex

Overall, both labeled and unlabeled felons were re-convicted about 19% of the time. However, a label made women 19% more likely to re-offend than males, and made whites 16% more likely than blacks and Hispanics.

More generally, within the group of labeled felons, females were more likely to re-offend than males; white were more likely to re-offend than blacks and Hispanics; and those with a first conviction after turning 30 were more likely to re-offend than younger first-timers.

Researchers theorize that these differences exist because certain groups have a greater interest in fitting in with society and conforming to its expectations. These groups (women, whites, older offenders) find re-assimilating after a felony conviction more difficult than others, and so are more likely to participate in criminal communities and activities.

The authors of the study hope that Florida judges will consider their findings when considering assigning labels for convicted felons. According to the results, avoiding labels is generally more beneficial to both the convicted person and to society as a whole.

Those who are barred from participating in “normal” society have little choice but to participate in criminal society, the study suggests. As law enforcers, it’s important to make sure no one is forced to the outskirts.

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