What is it like to live as a registrant? Does the sex offender registry make our communities safer? These questions plus more I answer below.
The term “sex offender” can be very misleading. When most people hear the term, they automatically think child molester, pedophile, or rapist.
The definition of a sex crime differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But for general purposes, the common sex offenses fall into the following categories below. Also, people can be registered for peeing in public, flashing their breasts, having consensual sex with a teenager (even if you’re a teenager, too), visiting a prostitute, taking naked photos of yourself (if you’re a minor), or even giving a child a hug.
When you read the descriptions above, you may think of a middle-aged man that may commit these types of offenses. Sure, this does occur, but to better understand who is an offender, we need to look at who is commonly placed on the registry. By doing this, we can then better understand how life is for the people listed on the registry.
Yes, children are on the sex offender registry. Juvenile offenders account for 25% of registrants. In addition, approximately 200,000 people in 38 states are currently on the sex offender registry for crimes they committed as children. Some were put on the registry when they were as young as eight years old.
Youth sex offenders on the registry experience severe psychological harm. They are stigmatized, isolated, often depressed. Many consider suicide, and some succeed. Furthermore, their families have experienced harassment and physical violence. There have been cases of family members being shot, beaten, and murdered because their child is on the sex offender registry.
Juveniles on the registry also face restrictions when it comes to education. Similar to adult offenders, juveniles face residency restriction laws preventing them from being in or near a school. Even employment can be a challenge.
“It is often agreed that children were caught at the convergence of two increasingly harsh “tough on crime” policy agendas: one targeting youth accused of violent crimes and the other targeting persons convicted of sexual offenses.” – Raised on the Registry, Human Rights Watch
According to the American Bar Association, registering youth does not make children and communities safer—it perpetuates the cycle of child sexual abuse and causes irreparable harm.
As you may know, labels can stick a lifetime. The label of “sex offender,” “child molester,” or “sexually violent predator” can cause profound damage to a child’s development and self-esteem.
In addition to the facts listed above, the negative effects of being listed on the registry for juveniles can also include ineligible for public housing, and some private landlords refuse to rent to registered individuals (similar to adult offenders).
The current sex offender registry is bloated and full of errors. I speak more to this major issue here.
So what is life like for an adult registrant? The answer will of course vary depending on several factors including the crime committed, the state where the resident is residing, family and friend support, and other societal factors.
The majority of offenders are male. Research suggests that between 1% and 9% of those who offend sexually worldwide are women, depending on the source of data.
Registered Sex offenders (RSO’s) are often stigmatized in their communities as the public nature of their offense under SORNA. This has become such an issue that I’ve created my consultation services for registrants and families. The ostracism leads to these individuals becoming labeled as pedophiles or perverts by society (Hunter et al., 2015; Visher & Travis, 2003). Because of these labels, life can be hard for registrants.
It can be argued that society is at “War with Sex Offenders.” (Hoppe, 2016; Rose, 2017). This form of punishment can be compared to the “War on Drugs.” Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign continued to fuel public outcry against drug use which led to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (Yung, 2009). Scholars argue that Reagan’s policy was based on the result of propaganda and myths about the dangers of drug use. The same can be said with the sex offender registry. The current legislation is based on sex offender myths which have created support for harsh sentencing, monitoring, and tracking.
Being labeled as a sex offender also has numerous collateral consequences for the offender and his or her family. Research suggests that labeling a person as a sex offender isolates that person from society and prohibits him or her from reintegrating into the community because of the shame and stigmatization associated with the label (Higgins & Rolfe, 2017).
One of the major issues that registrants face has to do with employment (My personal experiences are explained below). Often times, managers or CEO’s are hesitant to hire someone on the registry because they fear backlash from the community, employees, or they are concerned about insurance issues. In addition to employment, housing is also an issue for registrants. A common practice among landlords, property managers, and private landlords are extending second chances with people with felony records while excluding individuals with sex crimes.
In 2016, HUD published guidelines for landlords about how to comply with Megan’s Law. The HUD guidelines recommend never to use arrest history as the only criterion for rejecting a housing applicant. Landlords must consider the nature and age of the conviction and any relevant intervening facts. In addition, California law states landlords cannot use information obtained on Megan’s Law website to discriminate against a registered sex offender by denying tenancy or evicting the tenant.
More resources on housing for sex offenders can be found on the Once Fallen website.
Life as a registered sex offender oftentimes brings the threat of homelessness. A 2016 study by U.S. and Canadian researchers and California’s Justice Department found offenders who are transient were several times more likely to commit new sex crimes. Only about 6 percent of registered California sex offenders have no permanent address, but that group accounts for 19 percent of new sex crime arrests among those on probation and one-third among those on parole.
To compound the housing issue, according to a New York Times article, only 14 out of 270 shelters in New York City (NYC) are available to house RSOs (Goldstein,2014). Due to the limited number of shelters that fall within the residency restriction laws and permit sex offenders, most sex offenders compete for the same resources, which consequently has left many of them to become transient (New York Times, 2014).
Although the imminent danger of labeling RSO’s has been recognized, the criminal justice system continues to stigmatize offenders under the guise of community safety.
“Such labels mark the individual as criminal, inferior, immoral, and evil. The individual is separated from society and stigmatized.” – Carla Schultz, San Jose State University
The labeling theory not only applies to the RSO, but the rejection, stigma, and ostracism also impact the sex offenders’ families. Approximately 85% of family members claimed they experienced stress caused by the registry. Over two-thirds of family members reported feelings of isolation, shame, and embarrassment (The Stigmatization of Individuals Convicted of Sex Offenses: Labeling Theory and The Sex Offense Registry). Most importantly, about half of the respondents feared for their safety due to the offenders’ public status. Their fears were justified, as 27% reported being the victims of property crimes, and 7% reported being physically assaulted because of the registry and community notification (Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009).
Many of my personal experiences as being a registrant has been tied to either employment or housing issues.
Before my arrest, I was a TV news anchor and radio disc jockey. Briefly, after my release from prison in 2012, I attempted to get back into the industry. Of course, this was a waste of time. What TV or radio station was going to employ a sex offender? Even recently I had a few interviews lined up for a news producer position to only fall apart because the news director “found out about me“, as he said in an email. Like I was some alien trying to hide my identity.
Don’t get me wrong…I’ve had jobs since my release, but they’ve always been somewhat unstable positions. For example, the manager would end up laying me off, or the company would shut down, or the pay was so low that I couldn’t survive on what I was making. The worst experience I’ve had with employment was what I call the “Kraftwerk K9 Disaster.” You can read more about this under my extended bio.
In terms of the sex offender registry, I’ve had it pretty easy compared to some of the other stories I hear. Living in an area where restrictions are a little less restrictive makes life a little more bearable. I also don’t live in an area where they force registrants to put the term, “Sex Offender” on their driver’s licenses. Also, the school and park distance restrictions are for the higher level registrants only (which is still an issue for many).
I feel the most challenging part about life on the registry is having to prove yourself to people over and over. Since my release from prison in 2012, I’ve produced five documentary films, been involved in public speaking, held fundraising events, started my own successful business, been a father to my only daughter, and a step-father to two children. I’ve also completed counseling and have taken full responsibility for my actions. But to a lot of people, that isn’t enough because I was convicted of a sexual offense. Sometimes I wish I robbed a bank or even been involved in drug manufacturing. These crimes are forgivable, aren’t they?
Life is hard on the registry. It not only affects the registrant but his/her family and children as well. But we have to move forward. What else can we do? We either move forward, or we give up and wither away. I refuse to stay in my home with the blinds and curtains closed to shut off from the world. I hope you can join me on this journey. It can be a scary thing to make a change, but I feel the alternative is a lot worse.