Guilt by Association: Labeling Research-Based Policy Suggestions as “Pro-Offender”

In the current political climate, keyboard warriors are out in full force: tossing rude insults, stigmatizing and labeling individuals, and posting adversarial disagreements to almost every social media post that crosses my desk. I recently stumbled across a Facebook post that advocated letters and petition-signing in the hopes of banning those required to register for a sex offense from yet another venue in life. A little more Facebook digging and I found numerous pages dedicated to labeling both convicted individuals and those only suspected of sex crimes. These pages (which do not violate Facebook’s Community Standards) are replete with hate, threats, and violence.

The reactions I read on this Facebook thread were similar to those I hear from students at the start of a semester of my Sex Crimes course.What the public repeatedly fails to understand is that someone required to register for a sex offense could be an individual who urinated in public in a school zone, a 20-year-old who had sexual relations with his 15-year-old girlfriend whom he later married, an individual caught viewing online child pornography, or an individual who kidnapped and raped a child (to name only a few). In their impact, these acts are extremely varied, yet each is under the umbrella term sex offender and this individual would be required to register.

Laws across the United States restrict where registrants can both reside and congregate, restrict participation in activities, restrict attendance at school functions for children or grandchildren, restrict travel both national and international, provide employment and licensure restrictions, provide designations on passports and driver’s licenses, allow for mandatory minimum sentences, and use a public registry to identify many individuals for life. Such legislation merely serves to create a public that feels safer; these laws do not empirically decrease sexual violence. But does that matter to most Americans?

The thread seeking to ban registrants from a sport venue was on a private Facebook group with 32,000 members. On average, a post on this page receives approximately 50–70 comments, with some posts receiving only a dozen comments. The thread in question continued to receive comments for well over a week, with a total of more than 1600 comments. The original poster elsewhere commented that: “It is NOT OKAY to mock or abuse people…It is NOT OKAY to be a bully…People need to start acting like civilized adults!” These suggestions apparently did not apply to this thread…

Free-Flowing Hate & Misinformation

The post advocated letters and petition-signing to the governing body of a sport, with the goal of banning all registrants from acting as a participant or spectator at sponsored events. After a week online, close to 2,400 people had signed the petition. (As an aside, this venue, often with children present and often in a public greenspace, would likely be restricted by existing laws that target a registrant’s movements.) It came to the attention of the original poster that a male registrant involved in this sport was paroled after serving 12-years of a 14-year prison sentence. The registrant pled guilty when he was in his early 30s to 4 counts, including indecency with a child and sexual conduct with a person under the age of 16. The individual was seen participating in an event (apparently permitted by the conditions of his parole as employment). There were indeed minors present and his presence offended majority of individuals on the thread.

While some individuals suggested a professional avenue for addressing this concern rather than Facebook, most posters felt free to direct nasty remarks at both registrants and anyone who suggested anything but the harshest treatment of registrants. Comments about registrants illustrated the media-perpetuated view of sex offenses rather than empirical findings. Some individuals expressed outrage: “Convicted pedophiles need to be banned…period”; “If your behavior is sufficiently deviant to get you on the list, out you should go!”; “It’s time to start naming names!”; “Pedos should be banned for life from ANY venue where children even MIGHT happen to be.” Some of the comments were too vulgar to repeat but involved suggestions of dismemberment, castration, and death.

MYTH 1:

Some individuals expressed variations of myths likely learned from the media: “Pedophiles cannot be rehabilitated which is why they are required to register for the rest of their lives” or “Pedophiles are incapable of reform according to studies. He will continue to prey on young girls.” One person commented: “You don’t cure pedophiles. That is why the registries exist….” And someone was quick to respond: “You do. With a bullet.” Another suggested: “Sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated. This is not my personal opinion it is fact. Guaranteed this little (expletive) WILL do this again and again and again, just give it time…There is no cure!”

FACT:

In response to these incorrect assertions, I linked a couple of easy-to-read articles that demonstrate empirical evidence that treatment can reduce the risk of recidivism and advance public safety. One link was to The Effectiveness of Treatment for Sexual Offenders the other to the New Hope for Sex Offender Treatment page. There were no comments to these links.

But posters were not only hateful to registrants, but also toward anyone who suggested anything other than barbaric criminal justice responses. These individuals were viewed as “defenders of child predators and not interested in children’s safety,” “disgusting,” “sex offender apologists,” and there were implications that they were themselves sexual offenders.

One individual posted a well-thought out response: “I do not support pedophiles in any way, shape or form but I find this whole thread disturbing. This is not a movement to make anything safer. If it was no names would have been named…Instead it is a direct attack on someone that has already served his time. It has publicly named his relatives. Causing them to have to live through this again. Causing the victim to live through it again. Why? What personal gain are any of you getting from this? It sure isn’t going to change anything. It only serves to bring out the villagers with their pitchforks. There have been calls to kill him. There are dozens of (armchair) psychologists that assure us all that this behavior WILL continue. No room for debate. Just further crucifying a man that has served his time. And just as horrific is the way anyone that doesn’t join in on this vendetta is being treated. Anyone that has dared to disagree has been called horrible names and has had the wrath of the crowd directed at them. I don’t think this was the original poster’s intent but that has been the result. This “peaceful protest” is a full blown riot….This “riot” does nothing to ensure safety of children…It’s the “unknown sex offender,” family relative or inner circle member that is the danger. Learn about victim grooming, and about secretive behavior….lists don’t keep you safe. Who’s next on the list?”

Some of the replies were quite personal: “You are seriously coming off as a pedophile and I wouldn’t trust children around you”; “I think I just threw up a little in my mouth reading…your…repeated arguments in defense of pedo participation”; “There are some sex offender apologists in these comments, and it is disgusting. There is no amount of prison or punishment that can negate the fact that they did what they did”; “What is your agenda defending pedos, I’m going to have to go check that registry again….maybe the FBI should check your hard drive. People that defend pedos don’t belong anywhere”; “When it comes to pedophile supporters, those people shouldn’t even exist….and some opinions are wrong and (expletive) up. You having an opinion doesn’t mean it has the same value as mine…Not every “opinion” belongs in polite society”; and “Loving that this post is bringing out the pedophile supporters, gives us names to stay away from…It’s terrifying, my unfriend button is ready LOL.”

MYTH 2:

Many of the posters suggested they were informed about the recidivism rates of registrants: “You are part of the problem. Are you aware that sexual predators have a 90% reoffend rate? That is a 90% KNOWN reoffend rate. That actual data is skewed since most sexual assaults go unreported. It is, more than likely, closer to 99%.”

FACT:

Wanting to correct this piece of misinformation, I linked an article published in the American Journal of Public Health that outlines several longitudinal recidivism studies. The article is Sex Offender Laws and Prevention of Sexual Violence or Recidivism. Several of the highlighted statistics point to a 2.1% recidivism rate for a second sex crime over 16 years in New York state, and a 5.5% recidivism rate over 14 years in Ohio. While the article points out methodology issues in recidivism studies, it clearly notes that “most new sexually based crimes are committed by someone not on the registry.”

Some posters suggested a background check for all exhibiting or attending members at this venue’s events, and another suggested a “list that holds enablers accountable,” referring to anyone not advocating for draconian, lifetime punishment. A more rational suggestion was that the government body in question begin to utilize SafeSport. The US Center for SafeSport has the “authority to respond to reports of sexual misconduct within the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Movement” as per the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017. The legislation permits the Center to serve as an independent organization with jurisdiction over cases of abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual), bullying, and harassment of amateur athletes. While SafeSport is not an option here because the sport is not under the guise of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Movement, even this suggestion couldn’t be agreed upon. Some suggested that: “SafeSport has wreaked havoc. People are accused and tried by the Committee without any way to defend themselves…and with little evidence. Lives can (and have) been ruined.” While others expressed that “SafeSport is an absolute joke. They are overwhelmed, underfunded, and don’t do their job 90% of the time.”

Inserting Evidence

As the American criminal justice system continues to strengthen laws against individuals who have committed a sexual offense, it is important to understand how attitudes toward controversial criminological topics can be altered based on scientific understanding rather than a media frenzy. In an unsuccessful attempt to share some of the evidence I have learned from 15-years researching sex offenses, I shared this post:

“I have not read 1500+ comments, and I don’t intend to (though the message of brand the offender, and/or kill and dismember him is clear). I study registrants and have for 15 years. Here are some factors of interest. It is never the victim’s fault and there should be no victim shaming, anytime, anywhere! The recidivism rate is very low — less than 5%. Someone who is on lifetime registration (as most registrants are) is monitored by law enforcement for life. They are usually not permitted to go to parks or where children gather. All registered offenders are not child offenders! There are many other reasons a person in put on the registry (statutory offenses, viewing illicit material, etc). Treatment is mandatory for those with a sex offense conviction and it works to achieve deterrence in the overwhelming number of offenders. Registrants have extreme difficulty finding work, housing etc., and this extends to their family. Labeling offenders and publicly displaying their information does NOT reduce recidivism. You may feel safer, but you are not. And the impact on the offender and his family is severe. Imagine the impact on a child of a registrant when his/her father’s name is plastered everywhere and people comment about killing him? Just because you *think* you have the right to know everyone’s business, doesn’t mean you do! Lists and public shaming do not reduce sexual violence (this is demonstrated by ALL the research in this area!). Education and outreach reduces sexual violence! Programs that teach good touch/bad touch, grooming techniques, and the importance of telling someone. These facts don’t make me pro-offender and/or anti-victim. Researchers reveal what works and what doesn’t. Stop the fear-mongering and hysteria!”

And then the backlash of comments began: “If you care more about protecting the offender, rather than making others aware that this person is out on parole, YOU are part of the problem.” Another wrote: “Well go buy your buddy a beer then. Can’t stand a woman who doesn’t stand by other women. How does he get away with it? Because people like you come to his rescue time and again. Stop it!” And: “You aren’t helping yourself. Your defense is textbook what people say who defend predators. You’re really a pathetic human to come on here to defend a sexual predator.”

One person requested I link resources to back up my “opinions,” so I provided several, including repetition of the information on treatment effectiveness. I linked an article entitled Sex Offender Registries: Common Sense or Nonsense? from Criminal Legal News and a government report entitled Sex Offender Laws and Prevention of Sexual Violence or Recidivism. Despite these articles and government statistics, I was still bombard with public posts and personal messages about the use of “my” fake statistics! In frustration, I replied again:

“There is so much misinformation in this thread, I literally don’t even know where to start. Pedophiles do not comprise all registrants, so banning registrants from an increasing number of places that children gather makes no sense if someone is registered for any number of online or adult offenses. The registry doesn’t empirically lower sex crime rates. Just because you know all about your neighbor’s business does not keep you safer! Sex crime rates are lowered through treatment, education, outreach. And the recidivism rates are very low. It’s unrealistic to make policy based on a small percentage. Offenders need to reintegrate into society with jobs, housing, etc. to help deter a future offense. Someone on this thread said, “Don’t question victims based on the 5-ish percent of people that make false allegations.” So why monitor, shame, and discard all registrants based on a low recidivism rate? Again, I am pro rational policies that actually, in real life, deter and help prevent sex crimes. The laws we have now do not!”

The replies were more of the same hate-spewing, knee-jerk reactions fueled by misinformation. But the interesting part was that people didn’t want to read the research, they just emotionally reacted. A couple of days after my posts on this thread, someone advised the group that pictures and accusations were being posted on Facebook referring to a completely innocent bystander as the “predator in question.” The poster stated: “It is NOT THE SAME PERSON and a post like that could conceivably ruin a person’s career and even his life. This is the problem with vigilantism. Suppose the police had been called or some people decided to take matters into their own hands? BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY AND POST. A good man is now forced to turn his life upside down.” There were zero responses to this revelation…

We live in a society that refers to those who have committed a sex offense as a sexual offender: as if that person is always an offender, as if that person is nothing more than an offender. If you played sports in college, are you forever an athlete? If you shoplifted as a teen, are you considered a thief as an adult? Does/should one bad act label someone for life? Part of understanding the stigma against registrants is understanding the power of language and labels in creating public fear which has translated to support of lifetime policies that are not empirically effective at reducing abuse of women and children. Often, it is an individual who committed one bad act, at one period during their life, and there is significant variance in seriousness across registrants. This does not dismiss the powerful and negative impact of a sexual offense on the victim and does not excuse multiple victim/predatory behavior! The purpose is simply to stop and think about the social and psychological impacts of a lifetime scarlet letter on registrant reintegration. The focus should instead be on awareness and prevention, which has been lost in reactionary measures.

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Lisa Anne Zilney

Educating the public about (1) collateral consequences of sex offense laws; (2) issues surrounding drugs and the drug war; and (3) other social justice issues.