Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Why We’re Not So Smart on Ex-Offenders, Sex Registries, and Much Else

At his blog You Are Not So Smart—and in his book of the same title—journalist David McRaney focuses on why humans are so “unaware of how unaware we are.” He focuses on the science of our own erroneous biases in everyday life. For example, ever said to yourself or someone, “That’s just what I thought was going to happen”? The likelihood is you didn’t—it’s just Hindsight Bias at work. Anyway, McRaney is a fun read and I recommend his work.

The research he reports on how we view people shows how powerfully we affect those around us. His entertaining chapters on self-fulfilling prophecies and “representativeness heuristics” (the prejudices that cause us to make quick decisions about people) have immediate application to how we treat former offenders. Quoting from the book:

In social psychology, a version of the self-fulfilling prophecy called labeling theory shows how when someone believes you are a certain kind of person, you tend to live up to those expectations. If your teacher thinks you are smart, the teacher treats you like a smart person. You get extra attention and respect. You react with more effort, more drive, and the positive feedback loop leads to the fulfillment of your label….

In a 1978 experiment by William Crano and Phyllis Mellon, a set of random students were chosen from an elementary class. The teachers were told these random students had been shown to be possible child geniuses based on an IQ test. The test, of course, didn’t exist, and the results were imaginary. Sure enough, those students performed better on homework and exams thanks to more attention from the teachers who believed the prophecy….

Research shows if you believe someone is going to be an asshole, you will act hostile, thus causing them to act like an asshole. This same research shows if people think their partner doesn’t love them, they will interpret small slights as big hurts–and this will then lead to a feeling of rejection that causes the partner to distance him- or herself. The feedback loop will build and build until the prophecy is fulfilled….

Representativeness heuristics are useful, but also dangerous. They can help you avoid danger and seek help, but they can also lead to generalizations and prejudices. When you expect people to be a certain way because they seem to represent your notions of the sort of people in that category, you are not so smart.

The implications for how we treat those on sex registries, or anyone who’s committed a crime, are obvious—policies that publicly label people could very well drive up re-offense rates by making those labeled live down to expectations. In essence we’re increasing our public safety risks by expecting the worst instead of the best.

Studies have repeatedly shown that what cuts recidivism rates is reintegrating offenders. That’s exactly what Vermont has done with its Circles of Support and Accountability program, to great effect. The COSA program has achieved 24- to 74-percent drops in recidivism rates among those served, as I reported last week.

For that story, I interviewed a COSA volunteer named Patricia. She’s a crime victim herself—she was physically assaulted during a home invasion when she was 15 and later had two homes burglarized. As a COSA volunteer, she worked with a man who had been sexually abused as a child and later abused two male relatives. He served 10 years in prison, went through sex offender treatment, and after getting out spent three years in a COSA in which Patricia was one of the volunteers.

The man credits his COSA to the fact that he now has a job, is married, and hasn’t committed another crime. He and Patricia are good friends.

Because of the knee-jerk prejudices that she encounters, Patricia told me that she’s “sometimes more scared of the public than of sex offenders.” She hopes that COSA can help change those attitudes: “Restorative justice,” she says, “does a better job than retributive justice of keeping people safe.”

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