When a person thinks of the term “sex offender,” they probably feel put off. Most people associate violence, risk, and even pedophilia with the status. Those words are easily equated with a bold warning of danger.
In states like Oklahoma, the words “sex offender” are printed in bright red letters on the driver’s license of a habitual or aggravated sex offender, sex offenders who were charged with rape, incest or sexual assault of a minor.
If you are on the sex offender registry list, your information is public to anyone. In some states, even after you are deceased, your name remains on the list – branded, forever.
When I began this research, I found that I was among the majority of the public who believe something widely accepted as fact, but nowhere near accurate. Jill Levenson, sex crime researcher at Lynn University, found that the average person believes that 75 percent of registered sex offenders will reoffend.
The recidivism rate is the likelihood that an offender will reoffend. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice shows the recidivism rate for every sex offender released in nearly 15 states for three years was only 3.5 percent, nowhere close to 75 percent. The same numbers have been verified in following studies in states like Maine, South Carolina, Alaska, Iowa, and Delaware, and they all found averages rates between 3.5 and 4 percent.
93 percent of all sex crimes are perpetrated by an offender known by the victim prior to the offense, meaning that “stranger danger” isn’t the biggest issue we should concern ourselves with. Having to register as a sex offender and abide by residential restriction laws increases the fear of community members, and alienates a registrant from normal day-to-day life.
A scarlet letter
Derek Logue is both an activist and a registered sex offender. Since being released from an Alabama State Prison in 2003, Logue has experienced unemployment and homelessness due to the complications that come with being a registered sex offender.
Because of his status on the registry, he is excluded from a number of programs that assist the poor. For example, the “Cincinnati Works” program, designed to help people with criminal records obtain gainful employment within the city, will not accept sex offenders such as Logue into the program.
Logue had found a sleeping room for $150 a month, but was forced to move in 2006 when the local sheriff’s office claimed that he was too close to a vocational training school for students ages 16 to 24. It took 131 phone calls for him to find a residence. In addition to housing and employment issues, Logue faced harassment both online and in person.
“One local anonymous crime blogger posted a very threatening article about me which included a picture of my ex-wife,” Logue said. “Other online trolls had posted my mother’s physical address. When my mother passed away, anonymous trolls found my mother’s obituary online and made disgusting comments and even made a mockery of her name, implying that she was burning in hell. I have experienced the occasional anonymous death threat and 3 a.m. phone call. One person told me in very graphic detail that he would behead me and then sodomize my corpse.”
Being an already extremely introverted individual, it is hard for Logue to muster the desire to participate in many functions of society. According to him, his life revolves around the single issue of being a registrant.
“Although I have suffered throughout my life from major depression, borderline personality disorder, and generalized anxiety, being on the registry exacerbates an already existing problem tenfold,” he said.
Logue said he has contemplated suicide a few times and has even resorted to self-harm.
“I live in a sort of parallel world where the rules that govern my life are different than the rules governing everyone else’s. Yet, because most sex crimes occur in the home, by someone the victim knows, and by somebody with no prior criminal record, none of these laws make any degree of sense,” said Logue.
Many registrants, like Logue, feel that public registry is a scarlet letter, and that registering each year is a lifelong punishment after already having served their time in prison.
What are the facts?
Supporters of the registry requirements argue that it’s a well deserved consequence of a sexual offense, and that it keeps potential victims out of harm’s way. The facts say otherwise.
In 2004, the Colorado Department of Public Safety tracked over a dozen sex offenders who reoffended, and found that residency restrictions neither prevent sex offenders from reoffending, nor make anyone less likely to be a potential victim.
In fact, studies in the Journal of Law and Economics have shown that sex offender registry laws can backhandedly push registrants farther to the fringe of society, resulting in poverty and homelessness, which can lead to a higher likelihood of reoffense. A study by J.J. Prescott of the University of Michigan and Johan Rockoff of Columbia University found that making sex offenders register with police may reduce the chance that they will re-offend, but the same research also found that making the registry information available to public can backfire, leading to higher overall rates of sex crimes. An additional study by Amanda Agan, University of Chicago Ph.D. student, found no evidence that sex offender registries are at all effective in increasing public safety.
An online survey by Richard Tewksbury of the University of Louisville collected data from 584 different family members of sex offenders. The study found that employment problems and subsequent financial hardships, like Logue experienced, were the most pressing issues according to family members.
Residential restriction laws added housing crises on top of the other challenges. The result is residential instability, usually pushing offenders to rural areas with less probationary supervision or access to specialized treatment. This gets in the way of effective treatment, which inadvertently causes more recidivism and re-victimization.
Daniel Silverman has experienced ongoing job insecurity and hardship due to his registry status.
“Being on the registry means that anyone can look you up, hassle you, and cause issues. It means that certain jobs are never going to be available to you. And I am not talking about jobs where you work with children. I mean just about any job that is not manual labor or working at Subway,” Silverman said.
“Some people on the registry are highly skilled and educated. Despite this, getting a job in their qualified fields is nearly impossible. As a result, people who once could make good money and contribute to society are subjected to lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs. When you were once able to support yourself and, perhaps your family, and now find that nearly impossible, it definitely adds stress.”
Silverman created a novelty photo company a few years ago that works with comic, sci-fi, and other conventions where he creates photos of people, places them in environments, and adds special effects. He had been running the company for almost five years, which grew from barely supporting him to making him nearly $80,000 in income each year in that time. That all changed when someone began to report to convention owners that he was on the registry.
“It didn’t matter that these people knew me. It didn’t matter that there had never been an incident of any kind. To them, it was a PR nightmare. In 2016, I lost over $40,000 in contracts alone. Then, this year, someone who runs a geek blog called, ‘Nerd and Tie’, wrote an article about my company, warning people that I am a sex offender. This had a cascade effect and, frankly, I do not know if my company will survive the year. I am also now afraid to work the conventions that will still have me because I fear people attending will have read the article and someone may attempt to do something to harm me,” said Silverman.
Logue and Silverman’s experiences are common among registrants, and they pose an urgent question:
How do we effectively reintegrate registrants back into society?
How can registered citizens like Logue and Silverman lead a stable life?
Lori Hamilton is the executive director of OK Voices, a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for the civil rights of individuals convicted of sex-related offenses through education, legislation and litigation.
Hamilton has been busy working on a case in the Tenth Circuit regarding the words “sex offender” on registrants’ drivers licenses, but took the time to speak about why she is involved with the cause.
Hamilton shared that she was a victim of a violent rape. It is difficult for her to discuss it without breaking into tears, she said.
“I am not one to hate,” she said. “But this event made me hate for the first time in a capacity that I had never felt before. Not for the man who raped me, but for the ones who were to protect me and serve justice who did not. My rapist is still out there. He is a threat to society. What will it take, another woman, another attack on me? The pain and suffering I deal with is something I would not wish on anyone.”
While Hamilton still struggles with her experience, she believes in forgiveness and second chances. As a rape victim, mother of a registrant, and a friend of someone who committed suicide as a result of false allegations, Hamilton sees suffering from all sides.
“Those who have paid their debt to society should be allowed to live in that society. Registrants are not all the same but are lumped into one category. I have great compassion for the sufferings of others, perhaps because of the depth of my own sufferings, and having heard the tragic stories the world has never heard. A registrant is an assumed pedophile. I choose to help the people who are trying to function and move beyond the mistakes of their past in a world that makes it impossible to do so. Residency restrictions and difficulty gaining employment impact their rights to pursue happiness,” Hamilton said.
A policy approach
Sandy Rozek, communications director for the National Association of Rational Sexual Offense Laws, believes a better system could be developed to prevent pushing registrants further from living a normal life. According to NARSOL’s website, the organization envisions “effective, fact-based sexual offense laws and policies which promote public safety, safeguard civil liberties, honor human dignity, and offer holistic prevention, healing, and restoration.”
Rozek’s ideal system is a private law enforcement registry that a registrant would be removed from completely after years of leading a law abiding, offense free life. More focus on treatment and less on punishment after sentencing would be a positive change, said Rozek.
“Public registration removes hope, and without hope, what is the point of trying?” Rozek said.
When it comes to rehabilitation, effective therapy and support are essential. “Those that are actually predatory and harmful need a research-based treatment program. Circles of Support and Accountability is [a group] that is excellent,” Rozek said.
Circles of Support and Accountability are volunteer groups supervised by professionals that support registrants as they are reintegrated into society after being incarcerated. In 2005, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers completed an extensive evaluation of 60 sex offenders who had received intervention from CoSA and 60 who had not. The study results showed that the registrants who had received a circle of support from CoSA had an 83 percent reduction in sexual recidivism and an overall reduction of 71 percent in all types of recidivism in comparison to the matched offenders.
Abandoning the one-size-fits-all approach is the first step towards a better system. The Center for Sex Offender Management, a research group funded by the Department of Justice, identified 20 practices that are most effective when dealing with offenders after their release. These practices include providing more housing options and better treatment programs. Unfortunately, the thousands of sex offender bills passed by legislators in the past decade have been geared toward harsher penalties.
In early 2013, Missouri state lawmakers passed a bill to remove those who committed sex offenses when they were 18 or under from the state registry’s website. The bill passed the House 153-0 and the Senate 28-4. According to Missouri News Now, supporters of the bill said that public registries leave a permanent mark on adults who may have been convicted as teenagers for consensual sexual activities with younger juveniles, and that they deserve a second chance outside of the public spotlight.
Governor Jay Nixon vetoed the bill that summer, hindering progress and keeping juvenile offenders publicly marked in Missouri for life.
This has to change, Silverman said.
“The current system is one in which the ‘price’ for the crime can never be paid. A person convicted of a sexual crime simply trades their physical bars for digital ones,” Silverman said.