• Rationale for Registry Reform

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    Labeling  theory  proposes  that  self-identity  and  behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the words used to describe or classify them; the stigma and isolation resulting from labels attached to those who deviate from social norms can be demeaning and may become deeply entrenched in one’s self-concept (Goffman, 1963; Maruna, LeBel, Mitchell, &  Naples,  2004).  Labeling  and  its  resulting  social  rejection  is also  related  to  the  concepts  of  stereotyping  and  self-fulfilling prophecy,  such  as  when  an  individual  internalizes  assumptions  about  him  or  herself  made  by  others  and  then  behaves in a way that conforms to that notion  (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989).  In  the  context  of  theories  of  crime,  the  exclusionary practices  activated  by  shaming  labels  can  isolate  stigmatized groups  from  mainstream  social  life,  solidifying  one’s  deviant identity  and  fortifying  criminal  behavior  (Bernburg,  Krohn, & Rivera, 2006; Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989). Thus, when we label people by the very description we don’t want them to be, we actually prevent the cognitive transformation that plays a role in social conformity and reduced recidivism risk (Maruna et al., 2004; Willis, 2015). This is especially true for the sex offender  designation,  which  defines  individuals  for  life,  some times by isolated events, in ways that foster unequivocal negation of other aspects of their character and behavior.

    Recent  cases  calling  attention  to  the  need  for  registry reform  have  prompted  public  dialogue  in  prominent  media outlets including the
    New York Times, NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, the New  Yorker  magazine,  CNN’s Anderson  Cooper  360,  and ABC’s Nightline  (e.g.,  Bosman,  2015;  National  Public  Radio, 2015;  Stillman,  2016).  For  example,  Zachery  Anderson  was  a 19-year-old college student with no criminal history when he met a teenage girl on a dating app and had sex with her. The girl,  who  admitted  she  lied  about  her  age,  turned  out  to  be
    only 14, which made their encounter a sex crime. Despite testimonials by the girl and her mother begging the judge for leniency, Zachery was sentenced to 90 days in jail, followed by five years of probation, and landed on the sex offender registry in two states for 25 years (Bosman, 2015; Levenson, 2015). As  Zachery’s  story  illustrates,  all  sex  offenders  are  not the  stereotypical  monsters  we  imagine.  Of  the  nearly  850,000
    registered  sex  offenders  in  the  U.S.,  about  6  –  7%  are  age  25 or younger (Ackerman et al., 2011), and many of their crimes involve  situations  like  Zachery’s.  We  know  from  decades  of neuroscience  research  that  the  executive  regions  of  the  brain continue to develop well into the mid-twenties, and that teens are  often  poorly  equipped  to  fully  appreciate  the  long-term implications  of  their  choices.  Sex  offender  registries  were originally  envisioned  to  help  concerned  citizens  and  parents prevent  victimization  by  listing  predatory,  violent,  and  pedophilic  offenders  who  pose  a  true  threat  to  children  and others in our communities. This goal is impeded by a system that  forces  people  like  Zachery  to  register,  diluting  the  public’s ability to tell who is really dangerous, creating an added workload  burden  for  law  enforcement  personnel,  and  generating  an  inefficient  distribution  of  fiscal  resources.  Every dollar spent monitoring someone like Zachery is a dollar not available  for  victim  services,  child  protection  responses,  and prevention programs for at-risk families (Levenson, 2012). All sex offenders are not the same, and the high monetary, human, and social costs of these policies are worthy of consideration. Registries  also  contain  many  other  offenders  who  may pose  little  threat  to  public  safety,  including  non-contact  and first-time offenders assessed to be at low risk to reoffend. An ever-growing  national  registry  system  tracking  over  850,000 individuals  weakens  the  public’s  ability  to  distinguish  truly dangerous offenders. The size and scope of the registry means that  impacts  are  felt  by  millions  of  people,  including  registrants  and  their  families.  Though  sex  offenders  inspire  little
    sympathy, evidence and logic suggest that in many ways registries contradict best practices in criminal re-entry. They may unfairly and unnecessarily deprive offenders of opportunities for success; indeed, the federal Second Chance Act, passed in 2008, specifically excluded sex offenders from its programs. As social  workers,  if  we  believe  in  social  justice,  we  cannot  pick and choose to whom it applies.

    Collateral Consequences of
    Sex Offender Management Policies
    The  challenges  of  reintegration  after  a  criminal  conviction  are  even  more  pronounced  for  registered  sex  offenders. The  legacy  of  any  felony  conviction  often  includes  employment  obstacles,  denial  of  public  benefits,  decreased  educational  opportunities,  and  disenfranchisement  (Maruna  et  al., 2004; Petersilia, 2003; Pettus-Davis & Epperson, 2015; Uggen, Manza, & Behrens, 2004), but the unique label of “sex offender”  can  obstruct  community  re-entry  even  more  profoundly. Sex  offenders  in  many  states  report  employment  difficulties, housing disruption, relationship loss, threats and harassment, and  property  damage  (Levenson  &  Cotter,  2005a;  Levenson, D’Amora, & Hern, 2007; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008; Sample & Streveler, 2003; Tewksbury, 2004, 2005; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000b). Psychosocial symptoms such as shame, stigma, isolation, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness  are  also  commonly  reported  by  sex  offenders.  These impacts extend to their family members, who report financial, practical,  social,  and  psychological  effects  when  a  loved  one is  placed  on  the  registry  (Farkas  &  Miller,  2007;  Levenson  & Tewksbury, 2009; Tewksbury & Levenson, 2009). Employment and housing problems experienced by the RSO were identified as the most pressing issues for family members, and some also described  threats  and  harassment  by  community  members, as well as social rejection of children of RSOs by teachers and classmates (Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009).

    Please read this full report and support its findings.

    Grand Challenges:
    Social Justice and the Need for Evidence-based
    Sex Offender Registry Reform

    School of Social Welfare

    Stony Brook University
    State University of New York


    Categories: Civil Rights, Juvenile Crime, Legislating Morality, Statistics and Research

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