Watching the Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, I was struck by how Republican senators pounced on the judge’s thoughtful, considered, and mainstream sex offense sentencing. My research examines why our sex offense policies are based on fear-driven myths and how excessive criminal-legal responses do not genuinely and effectively address sexual violence — and do create new harm. At the time, based on this knowledge, I wrote about the spectacle, where politicians like Josh Hawley accused Jackson of “endangering our children” and not “protecting the most vulnerable,” while those voting in her favor were branded “pro-pedophile” by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The message was clear: Supporting sex offense policy as it exists on the books is the same as supporting sexual violence, not caring for children, and, as in Salem, the equivalent of being someone who sexually offends.
Since 1994, ostensibly in the name of public safety, legislators passed sweeping federal, state, and local laws imposing onerous requirements and restrictions on people who have completed sentences for sex-offense convictions. On pain of further punishment and incarceration, these provisions require their names’ inscription on registries easily consultable by the public, notification of their moving into a new community, and restrictions on residency, travel, work, and presence. In practice, these burdens fail to reduce recidivism while subjecting those on them to never-ending state surveillance; even after sentence completion, not adhering to the myriad of complex and ever-changing rules, such as failure to update personal information to law enforcement, can result in reincarceration. An example: A 62-year-old, last convicted of a sex offense in 1989, and off probation since the mid-1990s with no sexual re-offense, received two years in prison for failing to update his registration in 2020.
For almost three decades, the Sex-Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as SORNA, has subjected millions with sex-offense convictions to a period or even a lifetime of being openly named, shamed, and essentially banished from society.
As I argue here, and in greater detail in my forthcoming book, From Rage to Reason: Why We Need Sex Crime Laws Based on Facts, Not Fear, the experiences of those convicted of sex offenses starkly reveal what happens when our society gets drunk on punishment. In my work, I focus exclusively on the post-sentence, public, and specialized punishments to which those convicted of sex offenses are subject. I do not question the need for them to be held accountable or to be prosecuted in the criminal legal system. Those decisions have their place, but they are not the focus of my work. What I address, instead, is the enhanced and extraordinary civil and criminal punishments for this group of people beyond the already extensive range of collateral consequences faced by others with criminal histories.
Public and political support for registries remains high. There is little evidence that attitudes have been impacted by a growing body of research showing that public registration, community notification, and residency restrictions do not decrease the incidence of sexual offense. Rates of sexual re-offense have been low both before and after registries, and sex offenses have lower recidivism than almost all other crimes. Further, decades of data consistently show that the majority of sex offenses involve non-strangers and those without prior sex-offense convictions. In other words, there’s scant proof that sex offender registries make us any safer.
Yet the absence of empirical support for registries doesn’t seem to matter, not even to people who should know better. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of registries and related post-sentence restrictions on the grounds that they are not punishment but necessary civil remedies required because of “frightening and high” recidivism rates. The Supreme Court did not use reliable research or data in their decision. Instead, as scholars Ira Ellman and Tara Ellman discovered in 2015, the justices based their ruling solely on an offhand comment about “frightening and high” recidivism. This was a remark made by a treatment provider quoted in an article published in the popular magazine Psychology Today.
My research is one of many efforts by advocates and scholars to educate the public about the hidden danger and destructiveness of these policies. In this work, I hope to vividly convey the experience of living life branded a “sex offender,” in the hopes of revealing — and ending — the cruel and unusual human impact of misguided strategies that purport to address the very real and pervasive problem of sexual violence.
In this work, I hope to vividly convey the experience of living life branded a “sex offender,” in the hopes of revealing — and ending — the cruel and unusual human impact of misguided strategies that purport to address the very real and pervasive problem of sexual violence.
Shining a light on this post-sentence cruelty matters because these registries’ continued existence feeds harmful binaries about degrees of guilt and harm that are so prevalent in the criminal legal system — contributing to the noxious idea that there are people who are “deserving” and “undeserving,” “violent” and “nonviolent,” “guilty” and “innocent,” and so forth. Yet this entrenched thinking is what often stymies attempts at reform. While there have been successful efforts to remove housing, employment, and educational barriers for those with criminal histories, those on sex-offense registries are often excluded or subject to special rules that don’t apply to anyone else.
Residency restrictions that require those on registries to live specified distances from schools and places where children congregate make many communities, particularly high-density cities, completely off-limits; as Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently observed, the restrictions also force many into homelessness or render them unable to leave prison after completing their entire sentence when their families live in non-approved areas. Some home associations build small parks for the sole purpose of triggering these restrictions. Even when permissible, many landlords are fearful of having their properties listed on public sex offense websites.
Community notification provisions require that neighbors receive a postcard warning them that someone convicted of sex offense is moving nearby. Some even have to pay for the publication and distribution of these notifications. One person told me that his new housing complex held a community meeting after receiving such a warning. The assembly was standing-room-only. Tears ran down his face as he walked in to face his new neighbors expressing their rage at his presence among them.
Companies that hire those with criminal histories often reject those on registries; similarly, college programs for the formerly incarcerated regularly exclude such people or dictate specific rules. These carve-outs are largely due to the ease with which anyone can find out about conviction history. Some organizations committed to criminal-justice reform, which actively seek to hire those with justice-involvement, exclude registrants.
Registrants also suffer other experiences of exclusion, such as being asked to leave houses of worship or organizations where they volunteer. They are often prohibited from visiting relatives — including those in hospice — due to travel restrictions. I know of one person who was told by his parole officer that he was forbidden go to movies, museums, or sporting events. He dreads the boredom of his weekends because his feelings of isolation, emptiness, and exile become too much to bear. Another told me that he loved attending adult dance classes, and there was no rule banning his participation; however, someone at the studio discovered he was on the registry and he was asked to leave. I have heard such stories over and over, regarding places such as yoga studios and gyms. There was no legal barrier on registrants’ presence, yet they were shunned or actually thrown out.
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Some states, such as Florida, require that those visiting for even just a few days register with local officials and are then listed on that state registry for life. Since 2016, those with sex-offense convictions are issued passports with a special mark and must notify the government of any international trips. Travel becomes gravely challenging and often impossible, even for those with work or family abroad.
Others fear “compliance checks,” whereby police make surprise visits to ensure that they are living where they are registered. In Oklahoma, driving licenses are branded with the words “sex offender.” One person I spoke to says he routinely avoids interactions or purchasing products requiring identification.
Some states, such as North Carolina, have presence restrictions mandating that those with sex-offense convictions avoid “child safety zones” where “minors frequently congregate,” including libraries, recreation parks, and swimming pools. Laws restricting presence are worded loosely, enhancing the fear among those affected that they may inadvertently be in violation. Some may avoid driving by schools lest their vehicles break down in front and they find themselves guilty of a violation. Another person I spoke to wrote a book and was invited to speak about it at three universities. He was disinvited after he notified the institutions, as required by law, that he was on the registry.
Many registrants fear leaving their homes; others worry that they will be attacked in their homes by vigilantes. Some have installed video cameras to document harassment by neighbors. As one woman noted to me, the very worst thing she has ever done in her life, for which she served her criminal sentence, is the very first thing her neighbors and those she meets learn about her. Many worry about ending up unemployed and homeless, because a school or daycare will open nearby, or the residency restrictions will change, or they will be outed by a co-worker.
The consequences, thus, go far beyond the criminal and legal. There is constant apprehension of social rejection on being “outed,” and the pain that comes from disclosing their status to new friends or potential partners and then being “ghosted.”
Such experiences are unique to registrants, due to the exceedingly easy public access to the registries. Anthropologist Roger Lancaster has applied the sociological concept of “social death” affecting this “pariah class of unemployable, uprooted criminal outcasts.” The taint of being associated with someone on the registry is enough to repel most people. The stigma of a sex offense undermines the ability to be human, form friendships and relationships, and be part of a community.
Many who experience harassment due to their presence on the registry do not call the police because they know they’ll be ignored or worse. Some have received calls from scam artists who find their names on registry websites and identify as police demanding cash for outstanding fines. Some pay out of fear, even if they are vaguely aware they are likely victims of a ruse. Others report the event to indifferent or mocking law-enforcement officers.
A Florida county commissioner recently mocked and derided those on registries, who were fighting for the right to testify against yet another ordinance limiting their ability to live freely. He chided their audacity in considering themselves victims. He clearly stated he did not see them as veterans, taxpayers, fathers, or spouses, but solely as perpetrators of harm who had no right to complain about their endless punishment.
The question raised by the never-ending punishment we inflict on those who have been convicted of sexual offenses extends to injustices faced by all those harmed by excesses in our criminal-legal system. There is a growing consensus that our approach to punishment in the criminal legal system creates more harm rather than reduce it. Yet we summarily exclude those with sex offenses from these conversations.
There is a growing consensus that our approach to punishment in the criminal legal system creates more harm rather than reduce it. Yet we summarily exclude those with sex offenses from these conversations.
Figuring out how to address those who commit sexual violence forces us to consider the limits of our own ability to allow for repentance and to forgive. In the documentary Untouchable, we see how Florida lobbyist Ron Book, one of the most vocal proponents of registry laws, reacts when told that sexual offense recidivism is low and the laws are largely ineffective at preventing sexual abuse. He dismisses these facts out of hand as unbelievable. Indeed, the very point of the registry is the brutality and dehumanization it delivers. The message we often hear is that those on it deserve such treatment, so the data or research or even the inconsistency regarding religious or philosophical ideas about redemption are inconsequential.
Those on registries are primarily men, and these laws are presented as policies that protect women and children. Yet those on registries live with partners, children, and parents who are also directly impacted by these restrictions and experiences of shaming. Those close to those with sex-offense histories often face bullying for not turning their backs on their family members; a number of women have told me of losing jobs, friends, and family because they continue to support their husbands and sons. Children of those on registries face taunting at school and ostracization. Some are home-schooled because their parents wish to shield them from bullying.
The very point of the registry is the brutality and dehumanization it delivers. The message we often hear is that those on it deserve such treatment, so the data or research or even the inconsistency regarding religious or philosophical ideas about redemption are inconsequential.
One man told me that someone vandalized the swingset he had built for his children; he said that truly confused him, because the destruction harmed not him but his children. And the mother of a man incarcerated for a sex offense was subjected to viral social-media harassment for her work advocating for those on the registry; her home address was published and she was threatened with physical violence.
These acts of violence, public and private, have created a class of so-called monsters denied basic human and civil rights, without decreasing sexual violence. Because of this ostracization, those who have harmed others cannot constructively repent when branded with a scarlet letter; the socially sanctioned humiliation to which they are subjected removes the very possibility of active repentance.
A broader question that might arise is why we should care about those who have done terrible things to others. After all, society tells us, they made a choice to do something that caused their predicament. Yet the reality is that registries do absolutely nothing to deal with the scourge of sexual harm. They don’t make us safer. They’re merely a punitive tool of social control that subjects millions to cruelty and harm that then spreads to their families and communities. Denying so many people an opportunity to be a part of our polity and a chance to thrive, while paying lip service to a carceral notion of public safety, disserves the rest of us. By making monsters out of them, we reveal who the real monsters are.