The reintegration of registered sex offenders into the community can be a daunting challenge due to concerns and perceptions of the community and society as a whole. These concerns include the likelihood of reoffending, accessing the needed services and a host of other social necessities and restrictions. The focus of research tends to rely heavily on how to monitor offenders, prevention of reoffending and changing the behaviors of sex offenders. The body of research on this population lacks insight of registered sex offenders’ personal experiences and barriers faced when released into the community and the difficulty accessing needed services, and the perspective of offenders identifying with this label. Current research on identity focuses and relies heavily on vocational, career and developmental aspects of how identity changes and develops. At this time, research lacks the insight on how criminal charges and labels can change ones identity. From this study I would like to examine the personal experiences of registered sex offenders and how they identify with this label and barriers faced during the reintegration process back into the community. In addition, I will explore what would make the reintegration not only beneficial to society but also to the offenders.
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There is a lack of research and literature on personal experiences of registered sex offenders in general but also on the obstacles faced when released into the community and how they identify with this newly publicized label. The lack of research on this population leaves many questions unanswered and unexplored which limits services that are needed and provided to this population. This may put this population at risk of reoffending and criminal behaviors. Qualitative research can be beneficial in examining the experiences of registered sex offenders (RSO). This methodology will allow for descriptive and interpretative data to gauge: personal experiences and difficulties faced within the community when labeled as RSO and identify barriers and experiences that make this reintegration and rehabilitation process challenging. In addition, this will allow researchers and professionals to explore how individuals with criminal behaviors identify with a newly developed aspect of their self-identity.
Research has relied heavily on recidivism rates of registered sex offenders rather than needed programs, training, therapy and access to needed services to make the reintegration process positive and beneficial to both the offender and the community. The literature needs further exploration of the personal accounts and experiences of RSO to gain an accurate account of what services are needed. The barriers experienced are not only at an individual level. They will also affect individuals socially, economically, and environmentally. Due to the limited resources allocated to aide in the transition of offenders, the need for increased and effective assistance programs can provide follow-up services and financial assistance that will present the community with a sense of security and decrease the number of offenders reoffending (Harrison & Schehr, 2004).
There have been laws that have been enacted at a local, state and federal level to supervise and control the retribution and treatment of offenders. These laws have included employment and residential restrictions and required sex offender registry and notifications (Strutin, 2007). In 1994, the first law was enacted that required states to employ a sex crime and offender against children registry called the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act as part of the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (www.ojp.usdoj.gov). The Jacob Wetterling Act was later amended and provisioned to include further information to identify important tenets of sex offenders. In 1996, the Wetterling Act was amended by Megan’s Law which required a statewide system to notify communities of registered sex offenders and relevant information to protect the public from violent sex offenders (public law 104-145-May 17, 1996). In addition, the Wetterling Act was also amended by the Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act of 1996 which requires sex offenders “who commit certain aggravated offenses and recidivate” (www.ojp.usdoj.gov) to register as a lifetime sex offender to provide nationwide tracking (public law 104-236). In 1998, provisions were made to require heightened requirements for offenders that are sexually violent to register and participate in the National Sex Offender Reigistry (NSOR). Lastly, in 2000 the Campus Sex Crime Prevention Act amended the Wetterling Act to require “offenders to report information on enrollment and employment of any offender at higher education institutes to provide this information to law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction of the institute” (www.ojp.usdoj.gov).
In 2006, the Adam Walsh Act was enacted to “protect children from sexual exploitation and violent crimes, to prevent child abuse and child pornography, to promote internet safety, to honor the memory of Adam Walsh and child crime victims” (public law 109-248).
Sex offender is defined as an individual “who is convicted of a sexual offense, sexual offenses include crimes such as rape, sodomy, and sexual abuse” (uslegal.com). A “registered sex offender is defined as a person who exhibits characteristics, showing a tendency to victimize or injure others and has been convicted of a sex crime as listed in states statues that have been convicted of attempting to commit a sex crime, or has been found guilty” (uslegal.com). Registered sex offenders are mandated to notify authorities of their place of residence to provide the public access to information about sexual predators living in their community (uslegal.com). Sex crimes are forms of human sexual behaviors that are crimes. Some sex crimes are crimes of violence that involve sex and others are violation of social taboos which includes variation among cultures as to what is considered a crime or not, and in what ways or to what extent crimes should be punished (criminal-law.freeadvice.com).
Sex offenders are classified at different levels, which are Levels 1-3, by their state as their risk to re-offend. Level 1 consists of sex offenders considered low risk to reoffend. These individuals can be “first time offenders and know their victims” (www.kingcounty.gov). Level 2 offenders are individuals considered a moderate risk to re-offend, these perpetrators may ‘have more than one victim and the abuse may be long term” (www.kingcounty.gov). These offenders are generally known to “groom their victims, use threats to commit their crimes, and sex crime may be predatory in nature using their position of trust and power to commit their crimes” (www.kingcounty.gov). Level 3 offenders are considered to be individuals at high risk to re-offend. These individuals typically have “one or more victims and have committed prior crimes of violence, may not know their victims, crimes show a significant amount of cruelty to victims, deny or minimize the crime, and commonly show clear signs of a personality disorder” (www.kingcouty.gov). These classifications are typically determined by the law enforcement agency the offender resides and is based on “science and multidisciplinary perspective using objective criteria to determine an offender’s likelihood to reoffend” (www.co.whatcom.wa.us/sheriff/sexoffenders/classifications.jsp). These classifications come with mandatory registration lengths with Level 1 registration lasting for 15 years requiring in person registration once a year. Level 2 requires 25 years with every six month registration. Level 3 consists of life registration with mandatory registration every 90 days (www.abclocal.go.com).
Megan’s law has been met with a number of concerns about sex offender registration and notification laws. Although the majority of states and communities purport that sex offender registries at some level do not respect the privacy of convicted sex offenders, the importance of protecting the “safety of the public outweighs their right to privacy” and the magnitude of barriers these offenders face when reintegrating into the community (Larson, 2003). The success of sex offender registration and community notification has been called into question. Have these policies achieved their goal in reducing sexual recidivism since its implementation? Tewksbury & Levenson (2009) offer evidence to support that sex offender registration and community notification as being effective is limited and have not demonstrated significant changes in recidivism.
The downside of Megan’s law includes the “fear of vigilantism, neighborhoods’ attempt to drive sex offenders out of their communities and the risk of physical harm” (Larson, 2003). It is believed that the public holds “misperceptions about sex offenders and strongly support the community protection policies” (Larson, 2003). These misperceptions include the belief that sex offenders have ‘high recidivism, view sex offenders as a homogenous group, and doubtful of the benefits of treatment” (Levenson, Brannon, Fortney & Baker, 2007). In addition, the small number of high profile cases of child abuse covered in the media has been shown to evoke public panic and alarm that influences the public’s negative attitudes toward sex offenders (Mandeville-Norden & Beech, 2004). The law appears to discourage offenders from complying with registration laws although it is a felony offense for noncompliance for registration. “At least 20% of convicted sex offenders fail to register their residence” (Larson, 2003). Sex offender registry perpetuates a false belief and sense of security that may distract communities and families from “paying attention to family members and friends which pose a greater risk than the offenders and strangers” (Larson, 2003). In addition, the concern of all offenders being lumped into one classification – registered sex offender – with “individuals who do not pose any danger to the public and have not committed a necessary sex crime’ but a violation to a society norm (Larson, 2003). For example, a teenager having a sexual relationship with a younger peer and being classified a sex offender for statutory rape and now classified as a sex offender for the next decade of his life (Larson, 2003). Megan’s Law creates apprehension on barriers the registry notification poses to the offender and how the offender adapts to the new label.
Sex offender reentry is a term used to describe the process of inmates making the transition back into the community (Shivy, Wu, Moon & Mann, 2007). This concept has increased curiosity due to the disadvantages and challenges the reintegration process presents such as “substance abuse, physical and mental health problems, employability and workforce participation, housing and interrelationships” (Shivy, et., al., 2007). Registered Sex Offenders are generally released into the community on “conditional terms” (Shivy, et. al., 2007). Ex-offenders granted conditional terms are mandated by the courts and managed through a probation or parole officer (Shivy, et. al. 2007). Conditional release can include restrictions and rules such as “curfews, drug testing, and the requirement to search for, obtain, and keep a job” (Shivy, et. al. 2007).
As ex-offenders search and explore legitimate work opportunities, many deal with the stigma attached to their criminal record and being labeled as a registered sex offender which comes with “legally enforced employment and housing restrictions barring them from working in particular occupations and living in certain areas” (Harrison & Schehr, 2004). Sex offenders were skeptical of any changes occurring in their quality of life due to the belief that it will be difficult to function successfully within society because of their label as a sex offender, which is similar to the findings of Harrison & Schehr (Williams, 2003). Additionally, most states and federal governments prohibit ex-offenders from accessing public aid funds or financial assistance for schooling.
An obstacle to employment for ex-offenders is the criminal record they are responsible for disclosing to potential employers and offenders being cognizant that they will not be judged on experience, skills or abilities but their criminal record. Even if the offender is not honest about their criminal history, legislation allows employers to seek disclosure from the criminal record bureau for any convictions an employee or potential employee may have.
It appears society continues to further punish offenders for a crime they have paid their debt to society by serving their time. However, when returning to the community, the system remains to oppress and disadvantage these individuals. Invisible punishments embedded within existing policies continue to oppress. Without modifications to these policies, the ability of reentry services to foster behavioral health and community reintegration is limited (Pogorselski, Wolff, Pan & Blitz, 2005).
Many released inmates are forced to return to “isolated, impoverished communities” where few jobs opportunities exist (Harrison & Schehr, 2004). According to the Reentry Policy Council, ex-offenders face barriers at an individual and community level that hinder efforts to secure and maintain employment. Barriers are mainly due to ex-offenders returning to communities that have limited amounts of available jobs due to the “low-income, disadvantaged communities providing few contacts to legitimate work, weak networks and contacts”. In addition, the stigma of having a criminal record exacerbates “employability and earning capabilities because of limited education, low skill levels and physical, mental and drug problems” (Reentry Policy Council). There are common characteristics identified that reduce employability such as “low literacy rate, school drop-outs, no qualifications, alcohol, drug and health problems and accommodation requirements” (Brown et. al., 2005).
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Most employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders, especially sex offenders. There are state and federal laws prohibiting individuals with certain convictions to work in certain occupations (Reentry Policy Council). Employers fear the risk of hiring an ex-offender since they can be legally liable for certain crimes if committed by an employee of theirs. Brown and colleagues (2005) purport American employers are more negative about employing ex-offenders but become more positive if offenders increased their education while incarcerated compared to Britain which is fairly positive in considering individuals with criminal records depending on size and industry type. Research has suggested there is a “hierarchy of offenses.” There is a greater likelihood employers would employ offenders of some offenses rather than others. Sex offenses are considered the most serious and judged negatively by employers with employers not at all likely to employ (Brown, et.al. 2005).
Graffam, Shinkfield, Lavelle & McPherson (2004) conducted a study examining six domains influencing reintegration of ex-offenders including “personal conditions, justice system, rehabilitation and counseling support, and employment and training support”. Participants were asked to identify variables within each domain that affect success or failure of offenders in making a positive life transition. The results identified variables including a “readiness to change, achieving stable housing and obtaining employment, avoiding illegal activity and complying with mandatory reporting, remaining free of dependency, and addressing basic education and training needs”. Shivy and colleagues (2007) found similar results concluding that the role of social networks was very important to ex-offenders. These results suggest that finding and keeping a supportive social network is highly correlated with ex-offenders finding and keeping a job and the possibility of the workplace offering opportunities for social support network. Many ex-offenders may lack social skills and confidence. They also may approach social situations with considerable amount of anxiety coupled with the impact of the stigma associated with being an ex-offender.
The reintegration of registered sex offenders into the community has been shown to be a high anxiety provoking experience for offenders. It has also been shown to be just as overwhelming for their family. Family members are reported to provide the most important form of support for criminal offenders especially registered sex offenders. Tewksbury & Levenson (2009) research findings on 584 family members of registered sex offenders found
“high levels of social isolation, fear, shame, property damage, and forced residential relocation. Perceived stress was significantly higher for individuals who are of lower economic means, felt isolated, have high levels of fear and shame/embarrassment, and/or were forced to move” (p. 623).
The ramification of the sex offender notification system not only affects the offender it affects his family and children causing a great amount of distress, concern for their safety and shame.
Johnson (2006) examined sex offenders’ abilities to successfully complete terms and conditions of their supervision and found that “sex offenders employed at the start and end of their supervision were significantly less likely to violate the terms of their conditions by committing a new sexual offense or general violation compared to unemployed sex offenders.” The results solidified the notion that employment has a “stabilizing influence by involving offenders in pro-social activities, improving their self-esteem, assisting with meeting financial obligations, and structuring their time, and thus reducing opportunities to commit crimes” (Johnson, 2006, p. 27 ). The positive effects of employment on sex offenders also transfer the ability to make successful progress in treatment overcoming the intense feelings of “shame, low-self esteem and cognitive distortion” (Marshall, Marshall, Serran & O’Brien, 2009).
Turner, Bingham & Andrasik (2000) examined the effectiveness of short term outpatient treatment programs and working relationships with their probation officer. This study found that “sex offenders mandated to receive outpatient treatment and maintained a close working relationship with the courts and their probation officer revealed a lower recidivism for 5 years compared to offenders not receiving any form of treatment”(Turner et. al., 2000). These findings were contributed to the primary components of the treatment which included “victim empathy skills training, sexual reorientation toward appropriate sexual behaviors through cognitive retraining, developing more adaptive emotional responses through group interaction and feedback, and emphasis on relapse resistance through stress inoculation and recognition of compromising situations” (Turner et. al., 2000, p. 221). In addition, individual therapy adjunct to group therapy was proved to be beneficial with this population. Grady & Brodersen (2008) found similar results from their qualitative study examining the perspective of incarcerated males who completed a sex offender treatment program and found it to be “positive and life-altering” (p. 339). Aspects of the group reported to be the most influential were the “face-to-face exercise and the victim empathy role-play and the relational aspect of interacting with both peers and the therapist” (p. 340).
English (1998) reports most sex offenders will remain or return back to the community. Therefore, the approach of the community to manage offenders need to be addressed and the commitment of the “criminal justice system and community agency to actively engage in a multidisciplinary approach” to address the many needs of the offenders as they return to the community is imperative (English, 1998, p. 218). Research suggests that when professionals engage in collaborative efforts, accountability, and understanding the roles of the individuals involved in the care and monitoring of the offenders, they are better able to be committed to teamwork, safety of the community and management of sex offenders. English (1998) proposed a sex containment approach and its five core components:
“(a) a consistent multi-agency philosophy focused on community and victim safety; (b) a coordinated, multidisciplinary implementation strategy; (c) a case management and control plan that is individualized for each sex offender; (d) consistent and informed public policies and agency protocols; and (e) quality-control mechanisms (p. 221)”
It is believed that if these components are planned, implemented, enacted in a timely manner and carried out appropriately this approach will be beneficial to the professionals, the sex offenders and the community. Conroy (2006) disagrees with the containment approach, it is believed that this is a “one-size fit all model to manage sexual offenders in the community” for all sex offenders (p. 11). The more effective approach suggested is an individualized approach to risk management focusing on “highest risk offenders, established risk factors targeted for intention, and special consideration for the presence of psychopathy” (p. 12).
The sex offender registries have implications for society and the offender listed on the registries. There is limited research examining the consequences of the sex offender registration and the negative experiences and barriers faced and the serious effects this can have on their social, mental, physical and financial well-being. As well as, the negative effects the registry can have on the ability of registered sex offenders to successfully reintegrate into the community and refrain from reoffending. Taking into consideration offenders’ experiences may help create a treatment approach that can aid in the successful reintegration into society and the community. It may also provide knowledge that can assist professionals in better treatment, management and supervision of offenders that will in turn foster safety for the community and the offender.
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