The Vilification of Sex Offenders: Do Laws Targeting Sex
Offenders Increase Recidivism and Sexual Violence?1
Hollida Wakefield, M.A.2
Institute for Psychological Therapies
ABSTRACT: Sex offenders are universally hated and despised and
seen as dangerous sexual predators unless locked up and kept under
surveillance. Following a number of highly publicized violent
crimes, all states passed registration and notification laws and many
passed civil commitment laws. Although these laws were passed as a
means to decrease recidivism and promote public safety, the resulting
stigmatization of sex offenders is likely to result in disruption of their
relationships, loss of or difficulties finding jobs, difficulties finding
housing, and decreased psychological well-being, all factors that could
increase their risk of recidivism. The civil commitment programs
amount to expensive preventive detention and incapacitation rather than
treatment; very few have been released. The high costs of the civil
commitment programs divert resources from other programs with a better
chance of being effective in reducing sexual violence.
Sex offenders are the most vilified group in society. People hate
and despise them and think they should be locked up for life. Other
criminals consider them too abominable to associate with. They are
seen as dangerous sexual predators for whom treatment won't work and who are
at a high risk to reoffend. These beliefs are widespread, unsupported
by facts, and have resulted in harsh laws specifically targeting sex
offenders (Quinn, Forsyth, & Mullen-Quinn, 2004). These laws are
easily passed since it is politically dangerous to take any stance other
than that of being tough on sex offenders. Such laws include central
registries that exist in all 50 states, involuntary civil commitment laws in
16 states, and new laws in several states restricting where released sex
offenders can live.
The focus is now on protecting society rather than individual rights.
Janus (2004b) notes the paradigm of governmental social control has shifted
from solving and punishing crimes to identifying "dangerous" people and
depriving them of their liberty before they can do harm. I believe the
net result of this may well be to increase rather than decrease recidivism
of sex offenders and make society as a whole more dangerous rather than
safer in terms of sexual violence.
Notification and Registration Laws
In 1994, following the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in
Minnesota, Congress passed a law mandating all 50 states to require sex
offenders to register with law enforcement agencies so authorities could
track them. After the New Jersey murder of Megan Kanka, Megan's Law
was added to the Wetterling Act in 1996. These laws require states to
have procedures to notify the public about sex offenders who live nearby.
People support these laws because they believe the vast majority of sex
offenders repeat their crimes (Levenson & Cotter, 2005a), despite the fact
research indicates sexual offense recidivism is far lower than most people
believe (e.g., Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004).
There is no research, however, indicating central registries actually
reduce recidivism. A study in Washington State during the first years
of registration found no statistically significant differences between
offenders who were subjected to notification (19% recidivated) and those who
were not (22% recidivated) (Lieb, 1996). Levenson (2003) notes,
"Driven by revulsion, anger, and fear that far exceed responses to other
types of crimes in our society, sexually violent predator statutes may
succeed in providing an illusion of public safety. The true efficacy
of these laws, however, remains undetermined" (p. 19).
In addition, notification laws assume most sexual offenses are committed
But in reality, more than 75% are committed by family members and by
people known to the victim (Winick, 1998). Family members are going to
be well aware of the history of the sex offender.
Although registration and notification laws may not reduce recidivism,
several commentators speculate there are ways in which such laws could
actually increase reoffending (Berliner, 1996). Winick (1998) observes
that registration may result in the sex offender being characterized as
deviant and ostracized by the community in ways that may seem impossible to
overcome. By denying them a variety of employment, social and
educational opportunities, the sex offender label may prevent these
individuals from starting a new life and making new acquaintances, with the
result that it may be extremely difficult for them to discard their criminal
patterns. Continued shaming and stigmatization may produce anger and
further deviance. They may eventually feel their essential identity is
as a sex offender. Like Leroy Hendricks, they may feel themselves
unable to control their impulses to reoffend because it is related to an
internal deficit instead of being changeable.
In commenting upon the newly passed notification laws, Prentky (1996)
notification of persons not within the criminal justice system, such as
police, raises at least three major problems. There is nothing to keep
an offender from going into an adjacent community and abusing a child there.
There is no evidence supporting the assumption that, when neighbors know the
identify of a recently discharged sex offender, they will act responsibly.
They may take matters into their own hands and the result will be further
violence. Additionally, registration and notification laws may result
in some people reoffending:
"We cannot dismiss the possibility that some percentage of offenders
will reoffend because of the stress and pressure imposed by a hostile,
rejectionist community that has branded the offender as a pariah.
Thus we may be unwittingly increasing the likelihood that some sex
offenders reoffend. There is ample clinical evidence to suggest that
maintenance in the community is the most difficult part of reducing
reoffense risk. Most sex offenders, even those that are released from
treatment programs, are returned to the community with few, if any, support
systems and expected "to swim." Satisfactory reintegration and
adjustment often poses the greatest challenge, even for the most
well-intentioned ex-offender" (p. 296).
Released sex offenders have been asked directly about how the
registration and notification requirements affected them. Levenson and
Cotter (2005a) surveyed 183 from Florida. One-third reported dire
events such as the loss of a job or home, threats or harassment, or property
damage. The majority identified negative events such as stress,
isolation, loss of relationships, fear, shame, embarrassment, and
hopelessness. Less than one-third thought communities would be safer
as a result of public notification. Less than one-fifth believed
internet registry was effective to protect the public. Of the
two-thirds of the offenders who viewed their internet registry information,
almost half reported some information was incorrect.
Zevitz and Farkas (2000) interviewed 30 offenders in Wisconsin who were
subjects of community notification meetings. Although only a few felt
the meeting with the police were major impediments in their lives, all but
one said the community notification process adversely affected their
transition from prison to the outside world. They frequently mentioned
loss of employment and exclusion of residence as consequences of
notification and the ensuing detrimental publicity. Some weren't
hired, others fired. Community members picketed against their
landlords. Some were evicted. One was relocated seven times in
five months. Some had to live in minimum security correctional centers
because there was no housing for them in the community.
Twenty-three out of 30 described being humiliated regularly, being
ostracized by neighbors and lifetime acquaintances, and being harassed or
threatened by nearby residents or strangers. All were concerned for
their safety. Twenty spoke of how community notification unfavorably
affected lives of family members, such as their parents. Although none
of the 30 had been revoked for a new sexual offense, some thought the
pressure might put them in the cycle to recommit an offense; that eventually
something could snap. Some saw it as an insurmountable obstacle
preventing their chance to ever succeed in society.
Farkas and Zevitz (2000) also observed hostility and anger in community
members who attended notification meetings. Large numbers expressed
anger and resentment toward the sex offender and voiced outrage for a
criminal justice system that would release such a person from prison.
Very few seemed willing to give the offender a chance, or sounded as if
they'd accept him in the neighborhood.
Tewksbury (2005) found similar results in a study of 121 registered sex
offenders in Kentucky. A significant minority experienced social
stigmatization, loss of relationships, employment, and housing, and both
verbal and physical assaults. Many reported they were treated rudely
in public, asked to leave a business, fired from jobs, and received
harassing telephone calls and letters. Tewksbury notes that this
research, along with the Zevitz and Farkas (2000) survey discussed above,
suggests when community members learn a sex offender lives in their
neighborhood, they may harass, victimize or discriminate against registered
offenders. As result, offenders may become increasingly isolated and
frustrated, which could in turn lead to reoffending.
Tewksbury (2005) notes that being listed on sex offender registry is
stigmatizing, for both the offender and for the offender's family. If
the offender feels his case is hopeless and he will always be seen in a
negative light, he may come to believe that reoffending would make little
difference to him. When this happens, the chances for recidivism would
be greater. Public censure may encourage him to retreat into denial
and defensiveness. The use of sex offender registries may lead to
social withdrawal and greater anxiety and stress for sex offenders.
This process, for some sex offenders, can be a precursor to reoffending.
"[I]t is clear that the collateral consequences of sex offender
registration as a criminal sanction may be quite serious and harmful, for
individual offenders, for their families and loved ones, and for
communities in general. Registered sex offenders are punished through
their sentences, through the shaming process of registration, and through
the reactions and responses of community members who are aware of
registrants' status as sex offenders. Families and loved ones may be
harmed through application of courtesy stigmas —
the simple ideas of guilt by association. And, communities and
innocent, vulnerable targets of sex offenders may be harmed by
victimization if and when registrants reoffend in response to the
stigmatization, isolation, and loss of support they may experience as a
result of registration. In the end the value and utility of sex
offender registration needs to be questioned and reevaluated with
achievement of the stated goals balanced against unintended costs and
consequences" (p. 79).
In reviewing the community notification laws. Levenson (2003) observes
they are clear political winners that give the illusion of public safety.
But there is no empirical evidence that they are effective in preventing
sexual abuse. She observes the negative effects on families, the scorn
and taunts toward offenders' children, and the potential for vigilantism,
and states, "[N]otification may undermine pro-social and rehabilitative
efforts by offenders, inadvertently reducing the effectiveness of
interventions more likely to protect the community" (p. 24). She
concludes this may exacerbate the stressors (e.g. isolation, disempowerment,
shame, depression, anxiety, lack of social supports) that often triggers
sexual offenders to relapse.
Levenson (2003) also observes that community notification increases
anxiety in parents and creates high workloads and costs for law enforcement.
She concludes there is very little evidence to support the assumption that
notification enhances community safety from sex crimes (p. 29).
In many states juveniles are also on central registries. Their
names and photographs may appear on the internet, even though most juvenile
records are closed under state law. I know of no research as to the
ultimate effect of this on a 12- or 13-year-old child who may have engaged
in sexual experimentation with a younger child. In terms of what we
know about labeling and self-fulfilling prophecies it can't be good.
New laws are being passed restricting where sex offenders can live.
A federal appeals court upheld a 2002 Iowa state law that bars sex offenders
from living within 2000 feet of a school or day care center. Iowa
cities and town began drawing their own buffer zones around parks,
playgrounds, trails, swimming pools, libraries, and school bus stops.
This put entire small towns off limits. Several sex offenders have
been forced to move. One 30-year-old sex offender was forced to move
out of the home he shared with his wife and three children because he had
been convicted at age 17 of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse.
The Senate Democratic leader's
comment was, "If the result is sex offenders leaving Iowa, we think that's
good news." In Florida, Miami Beach created a 2500' buffer zone round
schools, day care centers, and parks, making nearly the entire city off
limits (Dvorak, 2005). There are now such laws in 18 states (Davey,
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 26 registered sex offenders live in a rural motel
in the middle of
the country because of the 2000 feet rule. Some of Iowa's largest
cities have become virtually off limits to sex offenders who are forced to
live in groups away from their families. Others sleep in their cars or
in the cabs of their trucks. Some have simply vanished, with nearly
three times as many considered missing since before the law took effect six
months earlier (Davey, 2006).
The Iowa Civil Liberties Union (press release dated 9/29/05) appealed to
the U.S. Supreme Court with a petition for writ of certiorari. It
noted the law covers cases where a 19-year-old had sex with a 15-year-old as
well as persons who pled guilty to exposing themselves at a party. And
the law has no time limit. But the petition was not granted.
Levenson and Cotter (2005b) surveyed 135 sex offenders in Florida as to
their perceptions of the residence restriction laws. Most responders
said housing restrictions increased isolation, created financial and
emotional stress, and led to decreased stability. They also indicated
they didn't see residence restrictions as helpful in risk management and, in
fact, reported that such restrictions may inadvertently increase triggers
If it is hard for an "ordinary" sex offender to find a place to live, it
may be next to impossible for a civilly committed sexual predator, assuming
he is ever discharged. In California, Brian DeVries, the first
graduate of the state treatment program for violent sexual predators, ended
up in a trailer at the Correctional Training Facility on a judge's order
after more than 100 Santa Clara County landlords refused to rent to him
Labeling, Desistance from Crime and Good Lives
The view that registration and notification laws are likely to have the
inadvertent effect of increasing the risk of recidivism is consistent with
research on desistance from crime and the "good lives" model of sex offender
treatment. Desistance from crime is the process by which stigmatized,
former offenders are able to "make good" and create new lives for themselves
(Maruna, 2001). Maruna, Mitchell, and Naples (2004) observe that if
society is unwilling to take a chance on an individual trying to make an
effort toward desistance, these obstacles might lead to further recidivism.
This is a premise of labeling theory. It is the self-fulfilling
prophecy. Former prisoners who perceive opportunities are blocked may
develop a sense of hopelessness.
The person who is sanctioned and not allowed to reenter society (because
he is stigmatized) is more likely to engage in further deviant activity than
the person who is reintegrated into conventional society. When
society's reaction to deviants is to stigmatize, segregate, and exclude,
such persons are left with limited opportunity for achieving self-respect
and affiliation in the mainstream. They join subcultural groups of
similarly stigmatized outcasts. Hence, the vicious circle of
persistent offending (Kaplan & Damphouse, 1997, Maruna et al., 2004).
A sex offender attempting to desist from offending needs to maintain a
reformed identity. Prosocial labeling is an important part of this
process. Without some concrete recognition of their reform, many
ex-offenders might not be able to maintain their desistance from crime.
If the sex offender is ostracized, stigmatized, and isolated, rather than
reintegrated into the community, it becomes more difficult for him to resist
In the good lives model (e.g. Ward & Stewart, 2003), the therapeutic
focus is on implementing offenders' good lives plans rather than on simply
managing risk. This model is concerned with the enhancement of
offenders' capabilities in order to improve the quality of their lives, and
by doing so, reduce their chances of committing further crimes against the
community when released. The primary goal is to help offenders live
better kinds of lives, and thereby reduce their likelihood of committing
further crimes. This is consistent with Marshal and Moulden's (2001)
hope theory. Sex offenders who try to maintain positive changes in
their lives will be more successful at resisting reoffending than will those
whose lives are based on avoiding a series of negative events.
SVP Civil Commitments
There are sexually violent predator (SVP) statutes in 17 states,
targeting high-risk sex offenders who have served their sentences and are
about to be released from prison (Lieb, 2006). Janus (2004a) notes
that these civil commitment laws offer a "dangerous but seductive promise"
(p. 1233). In exchange for perfect protection against a few of the
most dangerous and reviled sex offenders, all we have to do is remove from
these persons the protection of our most fundamental constitutional
limitations on government power.
The SVP laws were passed with the promise of rehabilitation as a major
goal. Confinement would be limited because treatment would be provided
and the "patients" would be released as soon as they were no longer
dangerous or mentally disordered (Janus, 2004a). But in reality,
committed sex offenders are rarely discharged. The primary purpose of
these laws is incapacitation — to prevent future
sexual violence by direct physical constraint. Treatment is only an
additional purpose (Janus, 2004b). In reality, punishment, isolation,
and incapacitation are the dominant purposes (Winick, 1998). LaFond
(2000) observes that in some states, there was no bona fide treatment
program in place when the individuals were committed.
Several years ago, shortly after Iowa's SVP laws were passed, I testified
in one of Iowa's civil commitment cases. During a break I talked to
one of the attorneys from the state. She maintained that treatment was
the primary purpose: "We are going to treat them for a year or two and then
send them on their way," she insisted. That was over five years ago.
To date, not one of the men in Iowa's civil commitment unit has been
released. In fact, in most of the states, very few individuals have
been released (Lieb, 2006). Arizona seems to be the exception.
It seems obvious that sex offenders should participate in treatment
rather than wait for release and possible civil commitment. But, as
Winick (1998) observes, while in prison, sex offenders may hesitate to
participate in prison-based treatment programs because they are fully aware
if they make frank disclosures of prior offenses, these can be used in
subsequent civil commitment hearings. Winick (1998) also notes that after
commitment, one is labeled a violent sexual predator and told he has a
mental abnormality and can't control his behavior. This may undermine
the potential of any treatment he is offered. I have also seen
treatment records from persons who are civilly committed used by the state
in release hearings to argue against release. In effect, the treatment
providers are put in the role of double agents.
Civil commitment is not cost effective. LaFond (1998) calculated
the probable expense for several states for costs connected with
implementing these statutes and concluded these laws will be extremely
expensive, will generate at least three generations of litigation, and may
not be a wise expenditure of scarce public resources. Prentky and
Burgess (2001) note that the housing and treatment average from eight states
is $91,000 a year per offender. This doesn't include legal expenses.
A commitment trial can cost $100,000. They observed that Illinois is
predicted to eventually cost $1,007,719,300 over ten years. None of
these cost estimates include the new housing which will be necessary.
In addition, there are regular hearings in which the committed person is
reexamined with new psychological evaluations to see if he should remain
More recently, Lieb (2006) attempted to determine costs of the SVP
programs. She concluded the cost of operating secure facilities for
committed SVPs in the United States (for the 17 states that had a total of
3,493 persons held under SVP laws as of December 2004) is at least $224
There are no published studies evaluating whether civil commitment
reduces the rate of sexual offense recidivism or, more specifically, the
rate of the most seriously injurious crimes (Levenson 2003).
Therefore, large amounts of money are being spent to lock up a small group
of sex offenders to prevent unspecified sex offenses that they might or
might not commit at some unspecified time in the future.
Janus (2004a) notes that the promises of the SVP laws were "empty window
dressing" because we have little ability to predict dangerousness, because
the mental disorder limitation is so vague that it excludes almost no one,
and because hardly anyone is let out once committed. He observes that
the net result will be more victims and greater violence because of the
drain on the limited state resources:
"Ultimately it will be both society at large and future victims of
sexual violence who suffer, because the expense of SVP programs is wildly
out of proportion to their benefit. As more and more resources pour
into SVP programs, the distortion in policy and resource allocation will
become more and more severe. Society will suffer because of the
resource drain, and victims will suffer because these SVP programs will
draw more and more resources away from programs that address the great bulk
of sexual violence in the community" (p. 1237).
The situation is becoming worse, not better. In Minnesota, the
population grows as new commitments continue but no patients are released.
The political situation became worse with a high publicity case when a level
three sex offender was released rather than civilly committed and presumably
raped and murdered a college student. The governor even proposed
reinstating the death penalty for sex offenders (Janus, 2004a).
In Wisconsin, in 2000, officials liberalized criteria for release to
include individuals who
could be managed safely in the community. By 2003, 30 men had been
released, either conditionally or absolutely. Although several were
returned because of rule violations, none committed new sexual offenses.
But the press discovered the releases and shortly thereafter the legislature
changed the standards for commitment from "substantially probable" to
"probable" to reoffend, thereby changing the standard for supervised release
and discharge as well. The proposal also required "progress in
treatment" as a condition for supervised release. Supervised release
will now be much more difficult to achieve in Wisconsin (Janus, 2004a).
Sex offenders are hated and reviled. Vilification of sex offenders
has resulted in the passage of laws and sanctions that have broad public
support, are politically advantageous to support, and give the illusion of
increasing society's safety from sexual violence. But there is no
evidence they fulfill this promise. The registries, notification
requirements, and housing restrictions make it far harder for sex offenders
to turn around their lives and succeed in society. In such cases they
may become more, rather than less likely to reoffend.
Additionally, as Janus (2004a) points out, every dollar spent on these
programs "is a dollar that could be spent on the much more ubiquitous, but
relatively invisible, forms of
violence against women and children" (p. 1250). But as long as sex
offenders remain the most despised and vilified members of society, it is
unlikely that any politician will have the courage to take a different
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