Rationale for Registry Reform
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-basedSex Offender Registry Reform
School of Social WelfareStony Brook UniversityState University of New York
Rationale for Registry Reform
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