Features » February 18, 2016
We’re Rethinking Prisons. Is It Time to Rethink Sex Offender Registries?
Criminal justice reform is in the air. But not for everyone.
Despite their failure to prevent or interrupt injury to children, registries are resilient. People want to feel safe, and policy makers are invested in delivering these feelings.
When police arrived at her house to arrest her on May 8, 2013, Tammy Bond turned to her niece and said: “Aunt Tammy did something wrong.”
At age 45, she had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old. She was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and, like 26,000 others in Illinois, required to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life.
She has great difficulty finding housing or employment. She cannot eat in fast-food restaurants with playgrounds. If a recent Chicago ordinance had passed, she would have been banned from public libraries during the summer. No other conviction results in this level of interference with daily life once time behind bars has been served.
Prison reform is the topic of the day. Last year, former President Bill Clinton renounced the 1994 omnibus crime bill that helped fill the nation’s prisons. The Black Lives Matter movement has insistently called attention to structural racism throughout the justice system. A strange coalition is building in favor of reform at the federal level, made up of Democrats such as President Obama and anti-big-government Republicans such as Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.
Yet for the hundreds of thousands of adults like Bond who must register as sex offenders, penalties are only getting harsher. In one high-profile example, President Obama signed a law earlier this month requiring that sex offenders’ passports have a “unique identifier.”
In this reformist moment, the treatment of sex offenders could set a problematic precedent. In 2015, New York state Sen. Thomas Croci (R) introduced a bill to create a public registry for people convicted and suspected of terrorism. For politicians seeking to cut prison costs, why not repurpose the tools used to surveil and contain sex offenders—public registries, community notification apps, restrictions on mobility and employment, even passport stamps—to control other populations defined as dangerous or undesirable?
Nowhere to go
Bond believes that what she did was wrong. She was a teacher; the 16-yearold was her student. The relationship lasted two months. “I knew it shouldn’t have happened,” she says. “I am sorry for what I did. But it is too late for regret—at this point, it is done.”
She pled guilty and was sentenced to 180 days in jail and four years of probation. That’s a comparatively light sentence, likely because she had no prior criminal history and a private attorney, and because, according to Bond and her lawyer, the student initiated the relationship and did not say that he was coerced. Sentencing trends for sex offenses indicate that her gender and sexual orientation may also have worked in her favor, although her race—African American—likely worked against her.
Three days after her release from jail, Bond registered at the local police station as a “sexual predator.” She felt “embarrassed, unworthy, just like people think of sex offenders—the scum of the earth.” She couldn’t afford the $100 registration fee; the police waived it.
She couldn’t go home. Her house, which she owns, is catty-corner from a part-time child care facility. Illinois law prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 500 feet of a “school, playground, or any facility providing programs or services exclusively directed toward people under age 18.”
Some laws are even more extreme. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, sex offenders may not live within 2,500 feet of parks or schools. Unable to reside within city limits, a group of registered sex offenders lives under a causeway.
Bond, luckily, had a friend who could take her in temporarily, but finding an apartment of her own was a struggle. Before renting a place, Bond had to wait for the police department to check whether there were childcare facilities nearby, a process that can take days—by which time apartments were often unavailable.
She also struggled to find a job, despite having worked steadily since she was a teenager. If she wasn’t automatically screened out by her answer to the routine interview question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”, she says that in second interviews the question would come up, “OK, so you were teaching for five years—why did you stop?”
“And the only way I could think to answer was to be honest, because it would come out,” Bond says. Background checks, routine for any employer, would flag Bond as a sexual predator with a conviction for aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
She can’t help but contrast her experience with that of three other women incarcerated with her. All three secured employment shortly after their releases, despite having fewer formal educational credentials than Bond. None were sex offenders.
Even Walmart, where Bond had worked to put herself through university, turned her down. “I thought that they knew me and my work ethic,” she says, “and they would not hire me.”
Nine months after she was released, she finally did find work as a homebased telemarketer and transcriber. The employer willing to hire her? Another registered sex offender who created an agency explicitly to employ people on the registry.
No ‘typical’ sex offender
The term “sex offender” conjures up the worst of the worst, and many registered sex offenders have harmed children in unfathomably awful ways. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will potentially experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Younger children are often most at risk. The Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2012 that of 62,936 people under age 18 who were reported as sexually abused to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, about one-quarter were between the ages of 12 and 14, and one third younger than 9.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that there are approximately 850,000 registered sex offenders in the various state and local registries across the United States. Tammy Bond is not a very representative example: About 98 percent are men. At the same time, African Americans like Bond are disproportionately represented, accounting for 22 percent of those convicted of sex offenses and only 13 percent of the population.
In more meaningful ways, however, we don’t know what a “typical” sex offender looks like. There is little centralized national data on registered sex offenders, so it is difficult to know how many reflect our idea of the worst of the worst. Research by University of Washington Tacoma professor Alissa Ackerman and colleagues suggests that the overwhelming majority of victims of registered sex offenders are minors—as high as 90 percent in states where the age range of the victim is available. Yet, complicating matters, data makes it hard to identify how many people in the registries were 18 or under themselves at the time of the crime. According to a 2009 research brief from the U.S. Department of Justice, juveniles—most of them teenagers—account for one-quarter of those convicted of sex offenses (although not necessarily of those registered). Federal law requires people as young as 14 to publicly register for sex crimes, but states vary in their compliance with this law.
We also don’t know much about the nature of registered offenders’ crimes. A patchwork of federal, state and local laws determines who must register, and can include those convicted of sexting, possessing child pornography, soliciting prostitution, even public urination. The language of a charge may not convey much about the risk someone poses: For example, Bond was convicted of “aggravated criminal sexual abuse.” And a myriad of charges reflect our attempts to untangle the unresolved thicket surrounding age, sex and consent: Is a person convicted of “lewd and lascivious behavior,” a charge still levied against gay men who engage in public sex, a danger? Can a 16-year old consent to any sexual activity? If a 14-year-old emails out naked photos of himself on a dare, is he distributing child pornography?
Registries and recidivism
While there is no easy answer to what to do about people who sexually harm children, research illustrates that registries fail to deliver on their promise of public safety. Amanda Agan, a post-doctoral fellow in economics at Princeton who studies registries, published an influential article in a 2011 issue of The Journal of Law & Economics: “Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?”
Agan analyzed the effectiveness of registries in three different ways. First, she analyzed arrest rates in each state before and after registry laws were initiated, and she concluded that there were no significant changes in sex offense rates following the implementation of a registry.
Second, Agan examined the re-arrest data for approximately 9,600 sex offenders who were released from prison in 1994. About half of those people lived in states where they were required to register, while the other half lived in states where they did not need to register. There was no significant difference in the two groups’ recidivism rates.
Third, Agan explored whether the public knowledge of where a sex offender resides would predict where sex crimes might occur. Agan researched specific blocks in neighborhoods in Washington D.C. and concluded there was no statistically significant relationship between the number of registered offenders in a city block and rates of arrests related to sexual offenses.
Taken as a whole, Agan says, the existing research shows that “registries and post-release notification laws do not on balance seem to be effective at reducing sex crimes or recidivism by sex offenders.”
The most-cited theory for their ineffectiveness is the simple fact that children are rarely abused by strangers, making it pointless to ban sex offenders from schools and playgrounds. According to a landmark 2000 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which utilized sexual assault victimization data from a newly available database—the National Incident-Based Reporting System—strangers account for only 7 percent of sexual assaults against children.
Another theory, Agan notes, is that “these laws reduce opportunities for sex offenders to reintegrate into society,” perversely facilitating potential recidivism. Registries isolate people by stigmatizing them and cutting them off from housing, legal employment and social services.
What, then, works to reduce sexual abuse of children?
Anti-violence organizer and Reverend Jason Lydon is founder and national director of Black and Pink, the world’s largest organization for incarcerated people who identify as LGBTQ. Some of the 10,000 members inside prison are serving time for sex offenses and some have also experienced sexual violence.
“Ending sexual violence against children requires a deep cultural shift that includes efforts of ending poverty, dismantling patriarchy and all other forms of oppression,” says Lydon. Acknowledging that may sound utopian, he offers a concrete starting point: meaningful sex education, beginning in early elementary school. Good trainings, he says, include discussions of consent and create spaces “for children to understand their bodies and sexuality in a way that is not stigmatizing, while simultaneously educating adults on healthy ways to interact with children.”
Other solutions are being built. The survivor-founded organization Stop It Now! frames child abuse as a public health problem and works to educate adults and communities about prevention. The Secret Survivors initiative, a film and theater project by nationally acclaimed troupe Ping Chong + Company, uses oral history to raise the visibility of sexual violence against children.
In 2009, the Justice Policy Institute calculated how much the 2006 federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) would cost each state to implement in the first year. The estimates ranged from $848,009 (Wyoming) to $20,846,306 (Illinois) to $59,287,816 (California). What if these funds were channeled from registries to comprehensive sexual education for all?
The will to change
Despite their failure to prevent or interrupt injury to children, registries are resilient. People want to feel safe, and policy makers are invested in delivering these feelings.
When Bond learned that her sex offender classification would mean she couldn’t return to her home, she began writing state officials “from the governor on down.” Receiving few answers, she requested in-person meetings. “You wouldn’t believe how many responses I got back after that,” she says. Legislative assistants quickly replied to dissuade her from visiting.
The exception was former Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who wrote back to say that she found Bond’s perspective useful. She helped connect Bond with Illinois Voices for Reform, a statewide advocacy network founded in 2010 by Tonia Maloney. At age 19, Maloney’s son was convicted of criminal sexual assault for a consensual relationship with a 16-year-old—and of child pornography for possessing a topless photo of the girl. The network’s mission is to promote “the elimination of sexual abuse and the preservation of civil rights for all individuals through the use of effective legislation based on empirical research.”
Illinois Voices is swimming against the legislative tide. Illinois lawmakers have recently barred sex offenders from fast food restaurants with playgrounds. They’ve also introduced legislation to ban sex offenders from county fairs, require them to register—and pay the $100 fee—in the county where they work as well as where they live, and compel them to notify the police department if their employment is terminated. Most of these proposals are still pending in committee. Proposed legislation would also expand the registry to include people convicted of “sexually motivated” battery. In November 2014, Chicago Alderman Marty Quinn proposed an ordinance that would ban sex offenders from using libraries in the summer.
At the same time, with prison reform in the air, Illinois is rethinking facets of its criminal justice system. Under former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, the state shuttered seven correctional facilities between 2012 and 2013.
In 2015, incoming Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner continued to look for ways to trim costs and reduce prison overcrowding. He established the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform with the goal of reducing the prison population by 25 percent over the next decade. The 28-member commission has a sweeping mandate for a “comprehensive review of the State’s current criminal justice and sentencing structure, sentencing practices, community supervision and the use of alternatives to incarceration.”
Registries would seem to fall under this rubric. Maintaining the software, physical space and the trained personnel needed for registration costs time and money. Public radio journalist Rob Wildeboer has documented that as registration requirements escalate, many sex offenders in Chicago violate the conditions of their parole and are reincarcerated at substantial cost.
On June 3, 2015, Bond drove alone to Springfield and sat through the commission’s four-hour meeting. The public comment period was scheduled to start at 4:20 p.m. A day away from work, plus gas and parking, cuts into her tight budget. Why did she go?
“I know who I am,” she says. “If I hide, nothing is going to happen. I can’t wait for the next person to come along and fight the fight. I am not willing to sit still and let law after law pass, and then I might be like the people in Florida living under a bridge.”
Stepping up to speak, Bond identifies herself as a registered sex offender and described the onerous requirements that she and others on the registry face: how challenging it is to find work and housing. She does not claim innocence. She does not ask for her case to be reevaluated. Plainspoken, she asks the commission to consider those convicted of sex offenses in their recommendations.
The detailed, 24-page initial report from the commission, released July 1, 2015, includes many public comments, but not Bond’s. Nor does it mention sex offenders or sex offenses. Neither does the first part of the final report, published in December 2015; the second part will be released in spring 2016.
In plain sight
Only so much registry reform can happen on a state level. Federal legislation governs many of the requirements that shape the lives of people convicted of sex offenses across the United States. The Wetterling Act in 1994 and Megan’s Law in 1996 created national frameworks for sex offender registration and community notification. The 2006 Adam Walsh Act, which included SORNA, established more stringent registry requirements and opened the door to civil commitment for federal sex offenders deemed sexually violent: the indefinite detention in treatment centers or prisons after serving their sentences.
As of 2014, only 17 states were in full compliance with SORNA, and several states refuse to comply, citing the exorbitant cost of full implementation. The penalty for failing to comply is a 10 percent decrease in federal money available to a state to support anti-crime initiatives from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, and for some states forfeiting these resources is less expensive than full compliance.
Given the costs of registries and their ineffectiveness at reducing sexual violence, it is misguided to exclude them from current prison reform debates. Part of any such examination should be looking past the extreme stigma attached to people convicted of sex offenses and listening to how registries have ruined lives. Shutting people in the registry out of the conversation will push those who require social services and support farther to the margins. And monitoring this expanding population will require new surveillance technologies and practices that can be used against other communities in unforeseeable ways.
Conversely, looking squarely at sex offenders raises a core question: If not registries and endless surveillance, then what will make our children, and our communities, safer? This question forces us to consider meaningful ways to protect children from sexual violence and other harm—such as poverty, in which 14.7 million American children live, according to the federal definition.
Among people with convictions for sex offenders, Bond is one of the lucky ones. She has a strong support network, caring family members, a welcoming church, no other criminal history, access to good healthcare and some employment, although not enough.
“Most sex offenders are hiding behind the stigma,” she says. “If I have to put myself out there and be criticized or ridiculed or whatever people might do—I don’t find that beneath me.”
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Erica R. Meiners
Erica R. Meiners is author of several books, including Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies (2009), (2009) and For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State (forthcoming from University of Minnesota 2016), and articles in wide range of academic journals, magazines, blogs and anthologies, including Meridians, Windy City Times, Women’s Studies Quarterly, ReThinking Schools, Captive Genders, and Jacobin. The Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, she is currently a Soros Justice Fellow writing on reducing our nation’s reliance on criminalization to end sexual violence.