Do sex offender registries reinforce inequality?


By Trevor Hoppe . . . Public sex offender registries are at the forefront of what I’ve described in my research as a “war on sex.”

Offenders convicted of sex crimes are now singled out for surveillance and restrictions far more punitive than those who commit other types of crime. More than 800,000 Americans are now registered . Tracking them has created a booming surveillance industry.

In my work on sex offender registries, I have found that black men in the U.S. were registered at rates twice that of white men – resembling disparities found in the criminal justice system at large. However, these findings speak to the scope of the problem of American sex offender registries, as approximately 1 percent of black men in the U.S. are now registered sex offenders. My research suggests that inequality is deeply tied to sex offender policies.

Studies have found that rates in sex offender registration have ballooned more than 24 percent between 2005 and 2013. I wondered, is this in line with other trends in American corrections?

Data show it is not.

Although the U.S. still incarcerates far more people than any other country in the world, correctional supervision rates in the U.S. (including people in jail or prison as well as those on parole or probation) peaked in 2007 and have been declining since, albeit at a molasses pace. That means sex offender registries have grown while the prison population has shrunk.

Imagine being punished for something you did three decades ago. You served your time and thought it was in the past. Under American , moving on is nearly impossible: Most state policies are retroactive, meaning they apply to offenders who committed offenses before these laws were put in place. While these laws are the subject of several ongoing court battles, most remain in effect.

Offenders are subject to extensive public notification requirements, which include state-run search engine listings that feature their address, mugshot, criminal history and demographic information. In some cases, offenders are also required to publicly post flyers with their pictures or run newspaper notices advertising their residency. Some states, such as Louisiana, stamp “SEX OFFENDER” in large red script on driver’s licenses.

Having a mugshot disseminated across internet search engines is only the tip of the iceberg; once registered, offenders are subject to a wide array of housing and employment restrictions.

In many places in the U.S., sex offenders are effectively zoned out of cities and towns because there are no residential areas that satisfy all of the numerous regulations. For example, offenders may be prohibited from living within a certain number of feet from a playground.

They are often left with no choice but to live under highways or in improvised communities, such as the one in Pahokee, Florida depicted in the New York Times 2013 short film, “Sex Offender Village.”

Punishment scholar Jonathan Simon argues that the rise of sex offender registries is the result of lawmakers’ efforts to “govern through crime.” In other words, today’s lawmakers assert their authority by enforcing order and promoting fear of crime. This approach differs from, say, politicians who secure authority by promoting a social welfare agenda and social safety net.

Lawmakers offer a different explanation. They argue that more invasive policies are necessary because sex offenders are highly likely to commit future crimes. In their view, informing the public of their criminal history will offer protection. But as the U.S. federal government’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking notes, sex offender registration requirements “have been implemented in the absence of empirical evidence regarding their effectiveness.”

Now that all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have developed such registries, the evidence testing the effectiveness of sex offender registries is beginning to mount. It is mixed, at best.

One study followed sex offenders who were labeled “high-risk” for reoffending and who were released from Wisconsin prisons in the late 1990s. That study compared offenders who were subjected to limited public notification requirements with those who were subjected to extensive requirements. The researchers found no significant difference in the average time between release and a future offense. In other words, extensive public notification did not deter future offenses.

However, another study evaluated the likelihood of reoffending for sexual offenders labeled “high risk” released from Minnesota state correctional facilities. Here researchers found that offenders subject to community notification were somewhat less likely to commit another sexual offense.

Finally, a recent study found that sex offenders released in Florida between 1990 and 2010 had lower rates of recidivism than offenders of other types of crime – 6.5 percent for sex offenses, as compared to 8.3 percent for nonsexual assaults and 29.8 percent for drug offenses. Moreover, that study found that recidivism rates increased after the state legislature implemented sex offender registration requirements in 1997.

While the evidence is mixed that these policies are effective at deterring crime, the evidence of their collateral consequences is more consistent. Several studies of registered sex offenders have revealed how registries reinforce class inequality by creating patterned experiences of unemployment, harassment and homelessness.

From a public safety perspective, scholars note that registries provide the public with a false sense of security: While the existence of  reinforces a myth of “stranger danger,” most offenders in reality are acquaintances or family members. Balancing the thin support of the registries’ effectiveness against the more robust evidence of their negative effects, one scholar recently concluded these policies do more harm than good.

My research suggests there is also a racialized dimension to the war on sex offenders that complicates arguments in their favor. The evidence does not strongly suggest registries are effective at deterring crime. Rather, their most lasting impact may be their exacerbation of inequalities based on race, class and gender.


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    • #32459 Reply

      Do we really need to ask such a question? Ask this what criteria must be met in order to fulfill the prescribed requirements for inequality? Well…let’s see the rules that are established for ex offenders ! Residency, travel……and alllllll that continues to escalate, sounds like a textbook and many times over…… literal examples of every discrimination one can imagine or find in a person ! What proof ! or how much proof !, does the legal system need to establish grounds or a basis for addressing preposterous impediments, imposed on citizens after confinement ! What biased and unreasonable restrictions are to be carried by individuals trying to maintain balance and a just way to live while struggling with laws that burden and oppress unjustly those who in many cases were and are not guilty of ones entire plea deal or trial……etc ! Hello ! We need to have a greater impact on governing officials!

    • #32535 Reply

      I believe that all of this has stemmed from the supreme court judge that used a bogus statistic that he plucked out of a document that was nor supported by anything real in saying that the re-offence rate was something like 80% for sex offenders. From that moment on we have seen law after law created based on that. I always wonder if all sex offenders could use him for slander. We could certainly show harm.

      • #32776 Reply

        All ex sex offenders troubles started because bad cases Meagan kanaka and all the rest…..make bad laws ! History shows it is irrational and unjust to base laws off of others (victims) emotions and desires ! Registries were not considered because it violated civil and constitutional laws for defendants ! The law is Highly Corrupt and has ignored the constitution and the idiots in charge are neither professional or qualified due to bias and corruption ranging from greed to imbalance of symitism in favor of radical views such as regression not progressive civil laws and rules, I.e. stTe to state laws not in accord with each other, fake news intensified and solidified the negative features of sex offender crimes and punishments ! Liberal judges and no real accountability to ensuring defendants are not rushed through a system he’ll bent on plea bargains and theatrical court stunts that impeachment a the rights of the accused! And so forth!

      • #32777 Reply

        Supreme Court judge will be easy to overcome compared to Allllllll the other Craaaaap I mentioned ubove because all the combined Sheeeeet the people will not want to come to terms with…! ….this…stuff is what keeps this sex offender Craaaaap rolling like a giant snow ball from Hellllllll ! History shows time and time again one impressions are made and laws passed and people are stirred, well you know the deal ! Watch out! One Hell of a ride!

    • #32789 Reply
      Steve Szilvasi

      Thank You Mr. Hoppe for this well written piece:
      I have been turned down for so many jobs I am over qualified for, Also now about 11- months after out from incarceration experiencing the financial pains of having to pay a $100 Rape crises fund fee, as well as a $25. registration fee( local county), on top of a monthly probation fees. I feel nobody ever talks enough about all these extra payments they make people try to pay on limited incomes, or with no real jobs! I hope here in Ohio, the Re-codification committee maybe gets the ball rolling on me and others to-be able to get off the registry in the near future, I truly pray daily for this. It takes a great mental toll on myself, being punished after already doing time for something, when a person lied to get me into why I did that time, but I will not get into that.

      You truly have to humble yourself living on a SORNA registry, I am trying to network work around my community, and am trying to get into a internship( to be honest I have no idea if the do a backgrounds’ check to be a intern?)- to learn the field of Logistics, which will help me by next year, after I complete my Bachelors of Communications degree.

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