My name is Christopher E. Pelloski, MD. I have written two books that chronicle my experience within and research about the current U.S. criminal justice system and sex offender registry, Trauma, Shame, and the Power of Love, and A Torturous Path.
I listened to your recent piece about the sex offender registry on NPR, and I believe some key elements to your arguments were missing while others were off the mark. The registry fails to protect those it is intended to protect, not because it is implemented improperly, but because it would fail to protect the public even if the policy was followed to a T by every registrant and law enforcement agency out there.
Consider these points:
While there certainly are individuals who may remain dangerous after their incarceration and supervision, there is a large proportion of non-violent / non-forcible / non-contact / rehabilitated offenders who are on the registry. Examples of offenses/offenders include: teens close in age who engaged in consensual sexual activity below the age of consent, teens who were caught “sexting” images of each other, consenting adults who were caught having sex in public, public urinating while intoxicated, viewing/possessing child pornography, sex worker/customer activity, etc. These individuals pose very little threat to the general public based on these activities alone, yet they fall under the terrifying umbrella term, “Sex Offender.”
The rationale for having the registry is the erroneous belief that those who commit sexual crimes have a high recidivism rate and are “hard-wired” to reoffend. Department of Justice statistics and a large body of peer-reviewed, scientific criminology/psychology literature have routinely concluded that next to murder, sex offenses have the lowest recidivism rate of any category of crime. Even for the high-risk/violent contact offenders, by 5 years post-release, their recidivism rate, on average, is 5%. Further, recidivism rates often include non-sexual crimes and probation/parole/registry violations, which makes the true repeat sex offense rate even lower than reported.
The common perception that sex offenders pose a continuous, sociopathic risk to the community stems from a phrase uttered by then SCOTUS Justice Antony Kennedy in McKune v. Lile, where he stated that sex offenders have a “frighteningly high rate of recidivism (80%+).” The events leading up to and the aftermath of this false proclamation are highlighted in Jacob Sullum’s article.
90% of children are sexually abused by someone known to them (as I was, when I was little)—not some masked stranger hiding in the playground bushes, waiting to pounce.
Focusing on the extreme outlier cases is a great disservice to the public. From a journalistic point of view, it stokes panic and perpetuates misconceptions. From a policy-making perspective, it uses the horrific actions of a few, along with the public’s fear, fueled by news media, as a basis for flawed and punitive policies that crush the lives of thousands who are just trying to recover from their past mistakes and redeem themselves. This results in the truly American phenomenon of “Apostrophe Laws” and their unintended consequences.
Many sex offenders fail to register or keep in compliance because their lives are in upheaval or they are rendered homeless by residency restrictions and/or an inability to obtain employment as a result of the stigma associated with the sex offender label. Further, once a check-point has been missed (like an annual in-person update, a new car registration, reporting a new email, etc.), many are afraid to go to the authorities, thinking, often rightly so, they will be apprehended on the spot because of the lapse in compliance, NOT because they are avoiding detection for the purpose of preying upon unsuspecting citizens.
It should also be pointed out that since thousands of registrants are unaccounted for and most are only discovered when there is a non-sexual crime run-in with law enforcement, they obviously are otherwise staying out of trouble. If anything, this observation underscores why the current registry is unnecessary and ineffective. It also provides an explanation as to why law enforcement often chooses not to devote their resources towards tracking down every last sex offender: they know (as well as many other officials who work within the system) that most registrants pose very little risk—making additional funding towards enforcement of this policy a further waste of money.
Using totally fact-based and documented information, it is clear that the registry doesn’t really protect anyone to begin with, and its existence serves as a barrier to released offenders in that it severely interferes with rehabilitation and reintegration and in that it is a potential trap for technical violations, which in turn artificially manufacture new crimes.
For socially progressive organizations (like NPR) to present sex offenders and the registry in the manner of your article is disingenuous and logically inconsistent with the rest of your messaging. To dehumanize sex offenders and hunt them down, while championing other justice reform issues, is jarring, disturbing and hypocritical. In many instances, sexual offenses have the same psychological basis as drug addiction, alcoholism or other compulsions. These are all different maladaptive coping mechanisms originating from similar childhood traumas/adversities and mental illnesses and are amenable to rehabilitation. If we are going to talk about true criminal justice reform, we cannot pick and choose which offenders will be at the table and which ones will be excluded.
And sex offenders have routinely been excluded from recent law reforms. In many cases, the severity of punitive ordinances have been further ratcheted up against them despite the risk evidence pointing in the opposite direction. This is because the public has been socialized to believe that sex offenders are wired differently, Hannibal-Lecter-like, and therefore different and subhuman. And it’s articles and news segments like these which perpetuate this mentality.
Articles like these are also irresponsible in that they can encourage vigilantism. By giving the impression that remorseless sex offenders are out there, running amok and reoffending against anyone they can get their hands on, certain segments of our society may take the law into their own hands and, in their minds, proactively protect themselves and others from the eminent threat, since the system is not getting the job done. Violence and harassment against registrants is an unfortunate reality. This kind of reporting, therefore, creates a potential scenario whereby a 45 year-old man receives an extrajudicial death sentence because, when he was 19 years-old, he had consensual sex with his 16 year-old girlfriend and her parents found out.
I truly hope that you and NPR will ‘Consider All Things’ in your future programs,