Desistance from Sex Offending and the Consequences of Sex Offender Laws:
Results as of August 2014
August 4, 2014
Lisa L. Sample, Reynolds Professor
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
University of Nebraska-Omaha
Danielle Bailey, Ph.D. Candidate
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
University of Nebraska-Omaha
- The focus of this study is on registered sex offenders who have been in the community for at least 3 months and have not reoffended.
- This is a longitudinal study that began with one participant who was still in prison in 2006 and subsequently released in 2007.
- Through Dr. Sample’s expert testimony in a legal challenge to NE bill LB 97 and 285 in 2009, a snowball sample was created and subjects for this study grew.
- Dr. Sample remained in contact with litigants, and in 2012, the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at UNO provided her with some funds to grow her participant pool.
- With help from sex offender advocacy groups, to date, Dr. Sample and her research team have been contacted by 221 registered sex offenders in the community who have not reoffended, and have interviewed 155.
- The length of time registrants have been in the community without incident ranges from 6 months to 15 years.
The questions asked during these interviews were meant to uncover how these sex offenders had managed to defy media stereotype and live in the community without sexually reoffending. A common response across all subjects was that their desistance was mostly attributed to the help of family, friends, and/or their faith. With this in mind, the study was then extended to registrants’ family members and friends to 1) triangulate information provided to us by registrants, and 2) give registrants’ loved ones a chance to voice their thoughts on what it is like living with people who are so socially stigmatized.
· To date, the UNO research team has interviewed 30 family members of registered sex offenders.
· The majority of these participants have been spouses/partners of registrants, a few parents, and one adult child.
Overall, we have transcribed over 5,000 pages of interview data, which does not include the countless pages of emails we have received from those who chose to participate in this study via Internet due to confidentiality concerns, or who could not travel to Omaha or Lincoln. We continue to be available to subjects so they can contact us with updated information about their circumstances and their lives. The sample for this study includes:
- Registrants who had been removed from the registry pre-Adam Walsh Act in 2006 and the retroactive extension of registration requirements
- Registrants who had not been on the public registry due to low risk of reoffending levels and were then placed on public registries in NE in 2009
- Individuals who have always been on the public registry pre- and post-Adam Walsh Act
- Registrants who have been to prison and/or those who were placed on a period of supervision at the state or federal level.
- Registrants convicted for crimes ranging from first-degree sexual assault of a child, to child molestation, to possessing child pornography, and second-degree sexual assault of adults.
- Registrants in molestation and assault cases who previously knew their victims prior to an assault, were related to their victims, or were acquaintances
- Individuals who assaulted either adult males or juvenile males and females ranging from age 2 to 18
- Spouses/partners who have been with registrants pre- and post-conviction, and spouses/partners who began their relationships with registrants post-conviction.
- Parents and one adult child who still have relationships with their registrant loved one.
Although there are several limitations to this study, such as its small sample size, the biggest concern is the selection bias inherent in our study design. Participation in this study was voluntary and therefore only includes those willing to talk about their circumstances and those family members who wish to speak about their loved ones. In this way, this sample under-represents those who have assaulted strangers who where adults, those still in prison, those who for numerous reasons chose not to participate, and family members and friends who either no longer are acquainted with their registrant loved ones or do not wish to speak about this association. Despite these limitations, the unique feature of Dr. Sample’s research is that it is a proactive longitudinal study of registrants and their family members over time.
People do not live in vacuums, and consistent with sex offender laws and laws of human nature, people’s perceptions, attitudes, environments, social relationships, physical and mental health, friendships, and other aspects of existence are constantly changing. In this way, the risk of reoffending and the consequences of caring about a registered sex offender are ever changing as well. This study captures some of that change as registrants and their family members continue to contact the research team with new updated information about their lives. We are grateful to all who have participated in this study and for those who continue to contact us with new information. These data help us build the case for revisions to sex offender laws that will take into account the evolving nature of public attitudes, empirical evidence, and registrants’ circumstances.
Desistance from sex offending
- To date, still no one in this registrant sample has been rearrested for a new crime or been found guilty of a registration violation since their initial crime of conviction.
- This desistance pattern has remained constant over time despite reported changes in registrants’ family circumstances, employment histories, loss of family members to either death or social ostracism, or other perceived life tragedies such as the loss of homes, family pets, and travel freedoms.
- Most attribute their non-reoffending to the support they receive from friends and family members.
- Ironically, despite sex offender laws’ intentions to isolate registrants from pro-social members of the community, these laws have engendered a sense of collective identity among many in our sample that allows them to see themselves as part of a larger group with similar perceptions of injustice, social isolation, and social stigma.
- The growth of this collective identity among sex offenders that we have observed over time has facilitated registrant groups, clubs, and organizations in which registrants and their family members can find positive support, people with whom they can share their successes and discouragements, and people who can understand the consequences of being a registrant or living with one.
- One positive aspect of sex offender laws can then be seen as providing a structural basis around which similarly situated people have built social support networks to fill social isolation voids forced upon them by public notification and residency restrictions.
- Beyond the above, however, registered sex offenders still report experiencing job loss, social harassment, home displacement, law enforcement harassment, and some property vandalism as a result of their placement on the public sex offender register.
- Another factor registrants feel contributes to their desistance from offending is the role this study plays in their lives.
- Although we initially intended this study to involve a single interview and one follow-up with registrants and their spouses/partners, subjects continue to contact the research team via email or phone to share new problems they have faced when registering, new harassment from the public, changes in marital status, changes in employment, as well as new marriages, children’s graduations, new friends made, etc.
- Many note that the simple act of research personnel’s ability to just listen, rather than to judge, evaluate, assess, or treat gives them a sense that someone cares about their lives, someone understands their perceived senses of injustice, someone wants them to live productive lives in the community, and someone is interested in their lives, families, and friendships in a positive way.
- The therapeutic effects of this study on registrants’ self-perceptions and behaviors was not expected when the study began but demonstrates not only the effects research interactions can have on subjects, but also the perceived lack of social acceptance offenders feel in their everyday lives.
- A few study subjects report that research team members are the only people they have in their lives who are interested, who they can trust, and are not always looking for them to fail.
- As one noted, “You are the only one talking to me who is not just to trying to see if I am committing crimes or are going to.”
- Other findings beyond the discovery of a collective identity and the therapeutic nature of this research include that the role of employment, friendships developed at work, faith, and the struggle to keep a positive self-identity all influence registrants’ behaviors.
- Many of those who feel isolated and alone turn to their faith as a way to cope with loneliness and fear, and registrants are no different. Unfortunately, some subjects have been asked to leave their churches of worship due to their registration status, but all have managed to find other outlets for their worship.
- Over the course of this study, we have also witnessed the dissolution of families due to the use of child custody laws as neighbors and ex-spouses of registrants’ partners reported a registered sex offender living with children he did not father.
- Some spouses/partners have been forced by the court to choose between their sex offender loved one or their children. In this way, we have observed child custody laws used as weapons of retaliation, vengeance, and fear.
- Despite the rejection some registrants have faced by churches, employers, ex/spouses of their partners, courts, and neighbors, these subjects continue to not reoffend due to their development of coping mechanisms that engender a positive self-image, such as seeking out people with whom they can communicate their frustrations, fears, anger, and disappointments.
In sum, using several methods of triangulation, we have found that sex offenders in this study, representing predatory pedophiles to possessing child pornography, have not reoffended since their initial crime of conviction. Most attribute this to the informal social relationships they have created or maintained since conviction. Surprisingly, many have added members of the research team as more formal sources of social support, and attribute our interest in their lives as an added factor in their desistance. Most importantly, we have found that registrants’ lives change over time, thus affecting their need for social support to continue desistance. In some cases, registrants perceive their lives changing for the better and simply need someone with whom to share this news. At other times, registrants feel disappointed or discouraged, and it is at these times, they draw heavily on social support figures in their lives. For a few, this study has provided that support.
Consequences of registration and notification
- The harassment by law enforcement perceived by registrants and their family members when registering or during compliance checks continues to vary across offenders and jurisdictions over time.
- Changes in NE sex offender laws over time and a perceived unfairness of retroactive registration requirements and the elimination of the risk-based public notification system have created registrant advocacy groups through which a collective identity has been formed and used as a source of social support.
- Some registrants continue to experience harassment from their neighbors, have been forced to relocate to other neighborhoods, have difficulty finding employment, and have been banned from their children’s activities and places where their children play
- Some intimate partner relationships created post-conviction have been forced to end through the use of child custody laws evoked by ex-spouses or neighbors.
- Some still reject/deny the “sex offender” label forced upon them through registration and public notification as an effort to stimulate a positive self identity
- More importantly, many consequences of sex offender laws are felt by registrants’ loved ones.
Spouses/Partners, Parents, and Children of Registered Sex Offenders
· Widespread policies from private businesses and organizations restricting sex offenders from their properties create significant obstacles for family members daily activities, including daycare drop off, taking children to camp activities, and involving children in YMCA programming.
· The stigma of the “sex offender” label put forth on public registries creates single parent households, as responsibilities for child care and employment fall to the spouses/partners of registrants who are not allowed to participate in their own family activities as they did prior to conviction.
· Schools contribute to the creation of the single parent household as they forbid registrants from school grounds, children’s activities at school, parent/teacher conferences, and concerts.
· Children often react to the prohibition of their registrant parent from their activities with anger, acting-out behaviors, and/or socially isolating themselves.
· Why do people continue to support their registrant loved one? Most registrants’ spouses/partners and parents acknowledge the criminal actions of their loved ones and see them as bad, but they refuse to see their loved one as bad. In other words, they remain supportive of their loved ones because they are good people who did bad things, as opposed to being bad people.
· The “sex offender” label shadows everyone in the family, in that there is a constant state of paranoia and fear among spouses/partners about being judged, being labeled, or being ill-treated by members of the public.
· This fear and apprehension is created and reaffirmed by incidents of social rejection from their families of origin, threats of prosecution as an accomplice to a crime, loss of friendships, social rejection by church members, questioning by law enforcement during compliance checks, school administrator harassment, and the social isolation their children often face.
· Parents of registrants, particularly those whose children are convicted for an intra-familial crime, find themselves forced to choose between their own children. Do they take the sides of the victim’s family, and cast away their registered child, or do they continue to support the registrant and risk losing the rest of the family?
· Many spouses and parents still struggle with finding pro-social ways to cope with the stigma of being associated with a registrant, but they have found some solace in “underground” Internet chat rooms and advocacy organization blogs.
· It appears the Internet provides family members with a way to fill the void of social isolation and rejection by connecting with others who are similarly situated with whom they can share their thoughts, stories, and feelings, gain advice from others in the same situations, and experience empathy
· Like registrants themselves, some family members have also used this study as a source of social support for themselves.
· There are negative consequences socially, professionally, and parentally for being on the public registration website, and these consequences are not only felt by registrants but also by their spouses/partners, parents, and children.
· To the degree to which these consequences exacerbate the senses of loneliness, anxiety, isolation, and fear associated with sexual offending and disrupt family and friend relationships, public notification may exacerbate the behaviors it is meant to deter.
· In fact, no registrants mentioned sex offender laws or their prohibitions from public spaces as a motivating factor in their desistance from crime.
· Sex offender laws have, however, created a sense of a collective identity among those in this sample that helps abate their social isolation and feelings of rejection.
· In contrast to juvenile delinquency literature, deviant peers among the adults in this sample provide them with social support that helps them avoid behavioral triggers and manage their behaviors as opposed to encouraging them.
· This study demonstrates the importance of social integration in ending sexual reoffending.
· Findings also suggest the need for some social support interventions for those living with or related to registered sex offenders who are also experiencing social isolation, rejection, and stigmatization not for a crime they committed but simply because they live with someone who committed one.
· Changes to child abuse mandatory reporting laws would allow families to seek therapy and counseling without fear of legal reprisals for the thoughts and feelings they share. In this way, perhaps these changes can be seen as preventative crime control measures to ensure the children of registrants do not grow up to be angry, anxious, and frustrated criminal adults.
To date, our analyses of interview data suggest that public notification of sex offender information not only turns registrants into “social refugees” (Dum, 2013), but also their loved ones. Given the elimination of the risk-based notification system in NE in 2009, the pool of “social refugees” has considerably grown. Registrants and their family members have responded to their “refugee” status by creating their own organizations and advocacy groups that engender a sense of collective identity that thwarts some of the isolation they feel. This collective identity, however, has not always been fostered by choice, as many report law enforcement, probation, parole, public citizens, and school officials interact with registrants and their family members with preconceived notions of crime types and personal attributes that reflect a media driven stereotype. In this way, the current legal structure and people’s interactions have forced a collective identity on registrants and their family members, for which many have turned into an opportunity to feel integrated into a broader group.
Sexual re-offending remains a media, public, and legislative concern, so it is important to not only ask why some reoffend, but also to ask why most sex offenders do not, which is this study’s purpose. Structural and individual level factors are both influencing the desistance from reoffending, but not in the ways expected. Despite the public “sex offender” label, some still find ways to maintain a positive self-identity, and family members have still found a way to love and support them. Laws have not been cited as a deterrent for behavior, but rather a way to bond sex offenders and their families with people similarly situated. Although Internet facilitated, these relationships based on some collective sense of injustice provide registrants and their family members with social support, empathy, and understanding. Regardless of this benefit, however, all subjects in this study wish to see a return to the risk-based notification system and registration laws prior to 2009 so they can not only find support among others similarly situated but also among the public as well.
Lisa L. Sample
University of Nebraska at Omaha
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Reference: Dum, Christopher. 2013. "It's Just People Trying to Get Along": A Year of Community and Conflict at a Sex Offender Motel. Presented at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Oct. 2013.