Ground-breaking research into why most former sex offenders do not reoffend concludes that Nebraska’s policy of putting every registered citizen on a public website harms families and might contribute to the very problems that the law was intended to deter.
“ . . . We have found that sex offenders in this study, representing predatory pedophiles to possessing child pornography, have not re-offended 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,” according to a report on the study released today.
“Most importantly, we have found that registrants’ lives change over time, thus affecting their need for social support to continue desistance,” the report said.
Not one of the registered citizens in the study credits harsher laws for desistance from re-offense. In fact, the report said, harassment by law enforcement and others as a result of the law can contribute to conditions that make re-offense more likely.
The ongoing study is being conducted by Lisa Sample, Ph.D., and doctoral candidate Danielle Bailey at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska-Omaha. Two-hundred twenty-one registered Nebraska citizens have come forward to participate in the study. So far, 155 of them have been interviewed.
“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,” the report said.
“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, 30 family members of registered citizens have been interviewed. Five-thousand pages of interview material have been transcribed.
“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,” the report said.
The research shows how misguided law, poor-quality news reporting and knee-jerk policymaking – all based on inaccurate information about former offenders – conspire to damage and destabilize families. In spite of research that shows former sex offenders have low rates of re-offense, news media stereotypes paint every individual on the public website as a predatory danger. Such inaccurate reporting then encourages institutions like churches, gyms and schools to issue blanket bans of former offenders, many of whom are parents and are thus barred from participating in their childrens’ lives, according to the study. Because the study is finding that social networks and strong family ties help former offenders desist from reoffending, current Nebraska law is eroding the factors that help prevent re-offense.
“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,” the report on the research said.
“Children often react to the prohibition of their registrant parent from their activities with anger, acting-out behaviors, and/or socially isolating themselves.”
The study found that Nebraska’s draconian law, enacted as LB 97 and LB 285 of 2009, has had the effect of creating a strong community of “social refugees” among former offenders in Nebraska. Advocacy groups established after the law’s passage as well as the researchers at UNO have therapeutic value for the registered citizens.
“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,” the report said.
The study’s conclusions:
- 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.
Click here to read the full report.