Grand Challenges: Social Justice and the Need for Evidence-based Sex Offender Registry Reform

Dr. Jill Levenson and her colleagues have published a paper in the current issue of The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare.   The article addresses many of the social justice implications of sex crimes policies and makes recommendations for registry reform. 

Abstract: Sex offender registries, though popular, bring with them enormous fiscal costs and unintended consequences for offenders and communities. Consistent with the Grand Challenges, social workers can play a role in advocating for sex offender management policies that are better informed by evidence and thus a better use of resources. Registry reform would also mediate the stigma resulting from the sex offender label, and reduce barriers to offender reintegration. A brief history of registration laws and the research regarding their effectiveness will be provided, followed by a rationale for needed improvements in sex offender management policy. Five evidence-based recommendations for reform will be proposed: (1) juveniles should not be subjected to sex offender registration; (2) registration durations should be guided by risk assessment research; (3) procedures for relief and removal from registries should be available; (4) discretion should be returned to judges; (5) residence restrictions should be abolished. Such changes can result in improved public safety outcomes and social justice, as well as reduced fiscal and social costs.

The influence of sex offender registration and notification laws on fostering collective identity among offenders

Recently, Dr. Tusty ten Bensel and Dr. Lisa Sample published an article in The Journal of Crime and Justice on registered sex offenders and fostering collective identity. 

Dr. Sample stated, "this publication is an important one in my opinion in that it demonstrates that registrants are cognizant of the legally prescribed label of them as equally dangerous and likely to reoffend, but in response to this label, they can form a collective identity as a member of an "out" group.  The marginalized registrants can interact over time to make them feel as part of a "in" group of registrants, which does offer informal social control.  To this end, traditional treatment, probation, and/or parole rules that force registrants to not associate with other registrants are misguided.  A way to cope with the structurally prescribed label of "sex offender" is to create a collective, or a "in" group of other labeled individuals who provide emotional and social support.

Abstract: A collective identity has been ascribed to sex offenders by law, in which everyone on the registry are presumed to be dangerous, at equal risk for reoffending, and deserve extra scrutiny and prohibitions beyond what other types of convicted offenders experience. As a result, sex offenders often experience harassment, social isolation, stigmatization, loss of employment, and homelessness. Such negative experiences may affect their identities or how they come to view themselves. It is then important to determine if sex
offenders accept the structurally and culturally collective identity placed upon them and what, if any, methods have been found to mitigate social effects on their identity. This study explored if and how the consequences of registration and notification (RN) laws affected notions of person and perhaps created a collective identity among sex offenders. We conducted interviews with 112 sex offenders and found that they did see themselves part of a collective group, one that was formed over time, exhibited a group level consciousness, and practiced negotiations within the group to change the thoughts and daily lives of members. We believe the results of this study can be used to highlight the need to recognize these identities when planning treatment modalities and determine the future of sex offender laws.