Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

How the Sex Offender Registry Increases the Risk of Reoffense—a View from Inside the Criminal Justice System (“Dolley’s” Story)

If you were going to pick the person least likely to find her family swept up in the scourge of public sex offender registries, you couldn’t do better than “Dolley.” She’s worked for almost twenty years inside the criminal justice system, particularly with ex-prisoners who have served their time.

As a criminal justice professional, she knows precisely what helps those who’ve served time and now are on the outside to reintegrate and avoid reoffending—jobs, housing, stability. At one point in her career in fact, she served in a sex offender treatment facility and halfway house, helping residents find employment and a place to live so that they could reintegrate into society.

But shortly after she started working there, her state passed its version of Megan’s Law. Offenders she’d been working with had their names posted online for the world to see. And suddenly they couldn’t find jobs or housing. She’d ask employers, “Three months ago, you didn’t mind hiring these people. Why won’t you now?” And they’d tell her that they couldn’t take the risk of hiring someone whose name was on a registry.

Research shows that sex offender registries, in fact, likely do terrible damage to ex-offenders’ ability to keep their lives on track. In the ground-breaking book Rehabilitating Sexual Offenders: A Strength-Based Approach, William Marshall, one of the fathers of the field of sex offender treatment, writes of the importance of helping those who’ve committed any offense to focus on building “good lives”—through maintaining good health, developing work skills, building stable relationships, finding hobbies, and so forth.

All of that is designed to build self-esteem, which a wealth of research has found is linked, Marshall notes, to a reduction in offense-facilitating attitudes, more empathy, and less loneliness. That’s important because all of those traits are linked to lower rates of reoffending.

Sex offender registries, of course, do just the opposite by creating a vehicle for public shaming. In so doing, they increase the risk of the very offenses they were ostensibly designed to prevent.

Dolley was about to find out what it felt like to be on the other side when she married her husband James. He’d served 20 years in prison—from 1982 to 2002–for a sexual assault involving a family member. When he got out, he was a changed man, which Dolley says is true of many of the ex-offenders she’s worked with. Serious prison time makes them want to keep their lives straight after they get out.

But the sex offender registry seemed to aim for the opposite—to destabilize James’ life and that of his family.

When James got out, he got a job and did well, receiving three promotions and four pay raises in four years. But In 2007, someone at his workplace found his name on the registry and told management, and he was fired.

And over the years, James and Dolley had terrible trouble finding a decent place to live. Shortly after they were married, Dolley tried to find them an apartment in the big city where they lived. They had excellent credit, and she had her stable job in criminal justice. But she called three hundred potential landlords who’d advertised, and she was up front with them—would they take a family with a member on the registry? The answer was always no or a polite promise of a call back, which never came.

They ended up in a poor neighborhood downtown where few people wanted to rent. When they moved in, police notified the neighborhood that someone on the registry was moving in. Some neighbors got together to post flyers with James’ photo, and for a while James and Dolley were the regular targets of derisive comments as they were walking home. A neighbor woman would sit on her porch and comment, whenever one of them approached, “Here comes the family of that sex offender!”

Eventually as they got to know the neighbors, things settled down and they made friends. But Dolley didn’t want her child to grow up in a neighborhood with bad schools, elevated violence, exposure to drugs. (In fact, even when family members of those on the list aren’t the targets of violence and abuse, their ability to get housing in only marginal neighborhoods represents another way they’re victimized.)

James and Dolley eventually found a house of their own far removed from the city. But even there they have no security. Whenever a car cruises slowly by their house, the whole family goes on the alert. “The vigilante stuff scares me most,” says Dolley. “You’re always looking over your shoulder.” (See Dolley’s post here about what that’s like.)

“I was a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key person before this experience,” and she still believes in punishment, she says. “I just don’t believe in punishment after punishment.”

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