Jerry Sandusky and his wife Dorothy on June 22.
For many, Jerry Sandusky’s conviction was a call for stricter laws punishing sex offenders. But for Shana Rowan, it was a reminder of everything she thinks is unjust and ineffective about the current laws. Rowan’s fiance is a registered sex offender, and she’s part of a small but increasingly vocal group arguing that he and others like him should never have been on a public registry at all.
Rowan told BuzzFeed Shift that when her fiance Geoff was twelve and his half-sister was six, he touched her inappropriately (she described it as “kind of like a game of doctor,” though she acknowledged that the age difference made it more serious). He was convicted of sodomy, and is now a registered sex offender. When they got together, she researched sex offenders and sex crimes. What she found convinced her that Geoff’s crime had been a reaction to abuse he had suffered, that he wouldn’t reoffend, and that many registered sex offenders were people “who made a mistake and won’t do it again.” Now she argues publicly, on her blog and elsewhere, that the sex offender registry in America is “far too bloated to be effective,” and that law enforcement should develop “smart assessments” to determine “who really needs to be watched.”
She’s not alone. While few people are comfortable advocating for the rights of sex offenders, some friends and family members of registered sex offenders have begun to do just that. On their own or in partnership with groups like Texas Voices and the Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network, they argue for a reduction in the size of the public registry, or for making it available only to law enforcement. And some experts say they’re actually right that registries may do more harm than good.
The stories of sex offender advocates often aren’t comfortable to hear, especially in the wake of the Sandusky trial. Lisa, who asked that only her first name be used, told BuzzFeed her 22-year-old son was currently under investigation by the FBI for downloading child pornography and having sex with an underage girl he met online (she said he believed the girl was over 18). She said her son deserves to be punished, but that he shouldn’t have to register for life. Stories of vigilante justice had her concerned for his safety, and for her own. When he gets out of prison, he may live with her, and she lives in a small town with “a bunch of good ol’ redneck boys” — if her son is on the registry, they’ll have her home address and possibly a description of her car. She now regularly emails her senator and other legislators to try to bring her worries to their attention.
Cynthia Mercado, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert in sex offender law and policy, says Lisa’s concerns are a real issue: in one survey she conducted, nearly half of sex offenders reported being threatened or harassed. And a third of them said someone they lived with had suffered threats, assault, or property damage. In some cases, registration can also lead to the outing of the victim, especially if that victim is a family member.
Mercado also questions whether registration laws really prevent future crimes. She says there’s little data showing they keep people safe, and increasing evidence that they might actually “increase, rather than decrease, the risk that sex offenders pose to our communities.” That’s because registration can keep sex offenders from finding jobs or housing after they’ve served their time, both of which are “important factors that promote desistance from crime.” She adds that being on a sex offender registry can isolate a person from positive social bonds with family and friends that might keep them from offending again.
Laura (not her real name) has experienced some of these effects firsthand. She told BuzzFeed she was eight months pregnant with her daughter when her husband was arrested for attempting to purchase child pornography. She maintains that he is innocent, but he was convicted and placed on the registry. Now, she said, he can’t get a job, and suffers from chronic depression.
Laura said “the worst offenders” do belong on a public registry, but that registration should be decided “on a case-by-case basis.” As it is, she said, her husband’s name and face are on a school district website, and her daughter has to be careful who she’s friends with — of those who make registration policy, she said, “they don’t care what the collateral damage is.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with her ideas about the registry. Scott Berkowitz, founder of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) says the public registry is a “useful tool” for both law enforcement and parents. He adds that any loosening of registration requirements “would have its biggest impact on families of small children who look to these registries to help keep them safe.”
That’s not how Rowan sees it. She says the story of Jerry Sandusky is a perfect example of the failure of the registry. She’s glad his victims got “some semblance of justice” with his conviction. But, she says, “the ironic thing is that he was never on the registry, and he will never be on the registry.”
Mercado concurs that most sex crimes, rather than being committed by strangers who could be looked up on the registry, “are committed by someone known to the victim or their family” — as Sandusky was. She also notes that not all sex crimes — or sex offenders — are the same: “despite widespread belief to the contrary, most sex offenders do not go on to commit another sex crime.” Registry laws, she says, “treat all offenders as highly predatory individuals who target stranger children.” But registration requirements that might be appropriate for a predatory serial child molester may not be the right punishment for someone who once committed statutory rape, serious as that offense is.
Politically, that may not matter. Richard G. Wright, professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State College and author of Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions says “hundreds of studies” have shown that “sex offender registries do not reduce reoffending.” But they’re popular because they “give people the perception that they’re safer,” and that popularity is unlikely to wane. While perpetrators of some crimes, like sexting or statutory rape where the victim is close in age to the offender, may be removed from registries in some states, he believes the public registry as a whole is here to stay.
For now, sex offenders’ rights advocates remain on the fringes of public discourse — Rowan says she faces harsh criticism whenever she speaks out about her views, and both Lisa and Laura have lost friends after their family members’ crimes. Indeed, the families of sex offenders may not be the best public advocates for change — in the wake of Dorothy Sandusky’s defense of her husband, the average person may not want to hear another wife or mother of a sex offender telling her side. But regardless of whether these spouses and parents have an accurate view of their loved ones’ crimes, they may be right about one thing: it’s by no means certain that sex offender registries actually keep families safe. And they may put some in more danger.