The Appeal Podcast: The Rise of Registries
With Appeal contributor Guy Hamilton-Smith and Elizabeth Letourneau of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Earlier this year, lawmakers in New York proposed a bill that would bar people convicted of multiple sex offenses from ever using New York City’s subway system again. The plan, which would inflict a form of banishment in the name of public safety, is part of a broader pattern. Sex offender registries
To discuss the rise of registries, we are joined by Appeal contributor Guy Hamilton-Smith and Elizabeth Letourneau, professor and director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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Adam Johnson: Hi and welcome to the first episode of the second season of The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Twitter and Facebook page and as always you can subscribe to us and rate us on Apple Podcasts.
Earlier this year, lawmakers in New York proposed a bill that would ban those convicted of sex related crimes on New York City’s subway system from using the subway system ever again. In addition, sex offender registries are increasingly used against defenders under the age of 18. Some states permit children as young as seven to be registered as sex offenders. But a growing body of evidence indicates that our culture’s rush to use registries for everything from sex crimes to terrorism to drugs may allow politicians to look like they’re quote “doing something” but do little to curb actual abuse. To discuss the rise of registries we are joined by Appeal contributor Guy Hamilton-Smith.
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Everyone agrees that sexual harm, sexual violence, rape, sexual assault, groping, these are all pressing problems that we want to effectively address. But if we don’t properly understand how they happen or who is responsible for them, then I think we’re really crippling our ability to effectively not only respond to these harms, but also our ability to prevent them in the first place.
Adam: And Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, professor and director at the Moore Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Elizabeth Letourneau: So less than 3 percent of children under the age of 18 who are caught and adjudicated or convicted of a sex crime will go on to commit another sex crime. So registration starts off by trying to reduce what is already a very, very low probability offense. They don’t achieve their main goal, which is to reduce sexual recidivism rate.
Adam: Thank you so much for joining us.
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Yeah, no, thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Your article focuses on a new legislative proposal making its way through the City Council of New York City. Now there’s a bigger issue here, but let’s kind of use this example as a way of talking about it. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have informally or theoretically endorsed this ban, but can we talk about this ban proposed by City Councilman Chaim Deutsch to, um, make it against the law for people who are registered sex offenders to ride public transportation in New York?
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Well, my understanding of the proposal and there are a few different, I mean there are a few different legislative proposals that have been tossed about, but his proposal in particular, my understanding of it is that it would specifically target people who have been convicted of sex offenses on the New York subway system and who had been convicted of, you know, sort of repeat offenses to then ban them for life. I mean, although there is varying proposals, sort of throwing about varying lengths of time, that bans could be for, but I believe his proposal was a lifetime ban and my understanding is that Cuomo and de Blasio have also voiced support, although maybe not for lifetime bans from the MTA, but for varying lengths of time. But anyway, my understanding is that was the proposal was to ban, you know, people who have been convicted of sex offenses on the subway for life.
Adam: For life. Now you write that there’s a stranger danger element to this, which is common in a lot of discourse around how we view sexual assault, which is that the assumption is that sexual assault or sexual abuse comes from people who are unknown. There’s two problems with this. Number one is that most sexual abuse doesn’t come from strangers and the extent to which it does, 94 percent of reported and cleared sexual offenses in New York state are attributed to first time offenders. So prior offenses wouldn’t really matter that much statistically speaking. Can we talk about some of the kind of empirical basis for this law and to what extent is it your assumption that it’s based largely on kind of looking like you’re doing something versus actually doing something?
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Yeah, and I mean that’s really a broader problem with our global approach to preventing sexual harm and holding people accountable for sexual harm is that it’s really badly misframed and out of step with the reality of sexual harm. And so the issue there is, you know, if you want to properly address a problem, I think that we all, you know, everyone agrees that sexual harm, sexual violence, rape, sexual assault, groping, you know, these are all pressing problems that we want to effectively address. But if we don’t properly understand how they happen or who is responsible for them, then I think we’re really crippling our ability to effectively not only respond to these harms, but also our ability to prevent them in the first place. And so with this in particular, yeah, this is a really easy way for, you know, the NYPD and Cuomo and de Blasio in New York to appear like they’re sort of, you know, that they’re doing something, and this is endemic with politicians across the country, is that these types of banishment proposals are really attractive because it’s a really deeply unpopular group of people. And it seems like it’s going to sort of fix the problem. But, you know, for the reasons that you stated, most sexual harms are not attributable and I think that that’s somewhat different in the context of subway offenses in particular. However, even data compiled by the NYPD for Senator Savino’s office, because she had a legislative, I believe she had a legislative proposal to increase punishments for some of these offenses. But anyway, in data that was compiled in support of that, even the majority of people who are arrested for sex offenses on the MTA, were not repeat, like had no prior arrest record. And so to the extent that this is the proposal that we’re implementing to prevent and deter sexual violence, it kind of reaffirms this broader frame of sexual predators being responsible for the bulk of sexual violence, which isn’t true in broader society and it isn’t even true in the context of the MTA. You know, I’m certainly sympathetic that politicians and police, you know, certainly take their mission seriously to do something about this but what I hope to be able to add to the conversation is that whatever politicians and police do, it needs to be informed with the reality of sexual violence if we want to be able to effectively address this problem.
Adam: So let’s talk about the sort of general impulse for registries. You note that they’ve gotten out of control of late. One of the things that The Appeal did in its founding, just to back it up here for our listeners, is that you run the numbers and you realize that if you really want to make a meaningful dent in mass incarceration, you’re not going to do it with quote unquote “nonviolent drug offenders.” You have to really think broadly about how we approach these things and our obsession with registries, which now includes the, you know, sort of terror watch list, you know, there was a move to ban guns on terror watch lists, this thing where we’re going to create registries and create effectively a kind of database of bad guys has expanded in scope, which was something people predicted. Can we talk about the impulse for registries as a kind of second order carceral tool beyond just prisons and what the evidence says about their efficacy, not just as it regards to sexual assault, but sort of in general. Is there much evidence that these approaches work or not?
Guy Hamilton-Smith: So it’s certainly true that, you know, I mean not only are registries expanding as sort of like a political response to crime, you know, it started with sex offenses and now there are violent offense registries, drug offense registries, Utah has a white collar crime registry, Kansas I think puts pretty much anyone who’s convicted of any kind of a crime on a public registry. And the thing that I am kind of seeing is that this is one way that mass incarceration is evolving and a lot of people aren’t really paying attention to the ways in which that is happening. But it’s a really attractive response. Like we love, you know, in America like we love our lists, we love our databases, we love our registries. And it’s also a really attractive response for legislators to be able to address problems that are really complicated. Like sexual violence is a really complicated problem. Crime generally, drug addiction, crimes of violence, you know, these are all really kind of complicated social problems and a registry is like a really easy way to sort of-
Adam: To sort of look busy, right? It’s something you can point to on the campaign trail and say, ‘I advocated for a registry,’ blah, blah, blah.
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Yeah, and no one is gonna like necessarily, especially if it comes to, you know, things like sex offenses, no one is going to advocate against that because it’s too difficult to sort of stand up against that framework. And like all of this would be really good if this translated to making our communities safer and like more equitable and also translated into a wise use of limited public safety and law enforcement resources. But none of that really seems to be bearing out and that there’s really better ways of responding to crimes and harms in our communities.
Adam: What are those better ways? Cause I think people listening would say, all right, you’re opposed to this arbitrary list-making, this kind of busy work, look like you’re tough-on-crime. Obviously there’s a a a moral hazard because you can never really, you can never look too tough-on-crime in general.
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Yeah.
Adam: That’s kind of been pushed back a little bit with reform. But I definitely think it’s probably true that sex crime is still one area where you’re not gonna really get away with that. Can we talk about what the evidence-based solutions are that maybe balance the harms that are being done both by, uh, the victims and the sort of alleged perpetrators?
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Well, I mean, I think that there’s a number of organizations out there, even victims rights organizations, that are really questioning like the law, you know, ever increasing expenditure of resources on these tools even as, you know, services for victims are being cut and slashed. And, you know, I think it’s really, it’s really a question of where we put our resources because they are sort of limited. We don’t have unlimited piles of money and manpower to, you know, throw at these problems of not only crime generally, but my area focuses on sex offenses and so we have these registries that are becoming massive. There’s about, you know, according to the most recent NCMEC, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, figures, which there’s some controversy about, but there’s about a million people who are on just sex offense registries in America and that figure gets larger every year because this is sort of like a lifetime thing. And the idea is that, you know, these registries are going to, you know, all these people repeat their crimes and that therefore these registries are going to enhance public safety. But none of that is really kind of born out by data or research. And there’s been decades of research on all this stuff. But these registries do drain massive amounts of public safety resources, not only in terms of their maintenance and implementation, but also police to investigate and arrest people who aren’t complying with like an ever growing complicated patchwork of post-conviction requirements. And then, you know, jail those people. You know, there’s like no public safety benefit to doing that. So on the front end though, you have, you know, like ProPublica recently did a pretty, I think it was last winter, they compiled data from a number of police departments across the United States and they looked at their rate clearance rates and generally speaking like the ability of law enforcement to effectively investigate and solve crimes of rape is pretty bad. And I know that if, for example, Meaghan Ybos, who contributes to The Appeal, she’s done a lot of really good work and Heather Marlowe on these issues about why police are bad, tend to be bad at investigating sex offense cases. Um, New York’s reported clearance rate for rape allegations is a little bit less than half — it’s 45 percent — which is actually pretty decent according to ProPublica’s data. Rates of like 30 percent are not uncommon. Professor Corey Young has also done a lot of really good work on this. There are reasons why police departments tend to be bad at investigating rape and they are not quite so simple as “he said, she said.” There are structural reasons. There’s a lot of poor training amongst police officers. There are, you know, there’s a great myth acceptance amongst police officers. There are sex crimes units, particularly in, um, I think Meaghan Ybos again has done a lot of really good work on this, particularly in Memphis, are understaffed. And so you have investigators who are like handling way too many cases and therefore then they get burnt out and they don’t, you know, investigate cases properly. So anyway, there’s a lot of reasons that like, and the important thing here is that if we really want to prevent sex offenses, then our whole approach has been, ‘well, we’re just gonna punish this so severely.’ But that doesn’t really do anything to, like criminological research indicates that doesn’t really do anything to prevent or deter people rather, I mean, it’s likelihood of any kind of meaningful accountability that deters people. And so if you’re, you know, if you’re putting all your resources into tracking and punishing people who don’t really pose a public safety threat and you’re instead allocating, so if we take those resources and instead, you know, people who have been held accountable for a crime and let them kind of move on to live a productive and healthy and law abiding life and instead take those, that enormous pile of resources and invest them on the front end, not only in terms of responding to allegations, but also taking a more public health approach to how we view sexual violence, then I think that we would have a better, you know, a more equitable system where we like prevent more sexual harm as opposed to essentially wasting resources on things that don’t serve victims. They certainly don’t help people who’ve caused harm to transition back into society. And they ultimately, you know, those approaches ultimately leave us less safe and less able to effectively, like I said, respond to sexual violence.
Adam: I think that’s a good place to end it. Thank you so much for joining us.
Guy Hamilton-Smith: Yeah, no, thanks so much for having me.
Adam: In addition to subways and other public spaces, registries are increasingly used for children who commit sex crimes against other children. The data suggests these laws do the opposite of their intended effect and may in fact be exposing more children to harm. To discuss this and the use of registries more generally, we are joined by Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, professor and director at the Moore Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Letourneau, thank you so much for joining us.
Elizabeth Letourneau: It’s my pleasure.
Adam: So today on the show we are talking about the increase — I would say, it’s fair to say — rapidly increased use of registries, not just for sex crimes, but for things including white collar crime, terrorism, guns and other transgressions. In your research, you found that this expansion has actually increased to children as well, that children who commit sex crimes are put on registries and kind of branded with it, in some states even on their license. Can we talk about putting children on sex offender registries and what that says about the reliance on registries in general, but specifically as it regards to sex crimes?
Elizabeth Letourneau: Yes, absolutely. That’s work that I’ve been doing, federally funded and foundation funded research that I’ve been doing since 2003 and my team and I have done some pretty deep dives into what are the actual effects of registering children for sex offenses.
Adam: What have your findings revealed? Are they effective? Are they ineffective?
Elizabeth Letourneau: Yeah, the, the research in this area, the research on juvenile sex offender registration is remarkably consistent. All of the studies that have been published — all of them, my own and others — find no evidence that registering children in any way improves community safety or reduces sex crimes. There’s two ways that a registration could work to reduce child sexual abuse. One of those is if they reduced the likelihood that a registered person will re-offend with a new sex crime. So if they reduce re-offending rates. The data are very clear on this point, registration fails to reduce sexual re-offending, and this is because so few children will go on to commit a new sex crime once they’ve been caught. So less than 3 percent of children under the age of 18 who are caught and adjudicated or convicted of a sex crime will go on to commit another sex crime. So registration starts off by trying to reduce what is already a very, very low probability offense. So they don’t achieve their main goal, which is to reduce sexual recidivism rates. The other way that registration could reduce crime is if they prevented first-time sex crimes. Your listeners might hear people defend capital punishment as important in preventing people from committing murder — that if you think you are going to forfeit your own life, you’ll be less likely to take somebody else’s.
Elizabeth Letourneau: So that’s another, idea that registration could reduce first time sex crimes. Again, the data are quite clear. We’ve replicated these findings across several states at this point. There is no evidence that registration reduces first-time sex crimes among children. And to be clear, when I talk about children, I’m talking about anyone under the age of 18. So we’ve looked at data from multiple states — Maryland, Oregon, South Carolina, where we’ve had entire state databases — we see no reductions in first-time sex crimes after registration policies are enacted. We’ve also looked at national data, data from across the US, and again, find no evidence of reductions in first time sex crimes that we can attribute to juvenile sex offender registration. So the research, you know, again, in social science and public health areas of research, you don’t often get this level of consistency in findings, but with juvenile sex offender registration, the results that have been published are all entirely consistent. There’s no crime reduction effect, there’s no community safety impact of juvenile registration. We have found unintended effects that we are able to attribute to these policies. So for example, one thing we found that’s an unintended impact is that when states implement juvenile registration, we saw massive increases in plea bargains and the plea bargains were from a sex crime to a non-sex crime. So typically from sexual assault to some sort of physical assault. And we don’t feel like that serves anyone very well. Certainly not the victims who had the courage to come forward and to say that they were harmed to see that the person that harmed them is not going to get charged with a sex offense and more importantly is unlikely then to get sex offense specific treatment. So anecdotally we’ve heard again using data from South Carolina that what happens is a kid comes in with a sex offense, gets adjudicated for assault, and then goes into the anger reduction intervention and not the sex offending intervention. So that’s one unintended effect. We also saw a significant increase in juvenile sex crime cases simply getting dismissed outright after registration came into effect. And again, after online registration came into effect. And that means these cases are just getting dropped period. And we’ve spoke with prosecutors and judges and defense attorneys, and again, this is anecdotal, but what they say is that they don’t want to see a kid labeled for life as a registered sex offender. And sometimes the only way to avoid that is to avoid prosecuting the kid. Again, we don’t think that that’s a very appropriate response and certainly keeps the kids safer from the kinds of negative effects that I’ll, I’ll mention in a bit that we’ve identified for youth that are subjected to registration, but again, it represents a perversion of justice, right?
Adam: So people listening would say, okay, that makes sense. But for adults, these registries are good. I know this isn’t necessarily your area of study, but is it, do some of these findings also track with adults as well or is there evidence to support that these registries actually do work for non children?
Elizabeth Letourneau: With adults, there’s been a little more research, so there’s more like 30 published studies. The majority of those published studies, the great majority of them, find no impact of registration on adult recidivism or on adult first time sex crimes. One of our studies actually found that juries and judges were less likely to convict an adult sex offender if he was going to be placed on an online registry.
Elizabeth Letourneau: So for example, in South Carolina, if you get convicted of a certain sex crime, you will automatically be placed on an online sex crime registry, on the online sex offender registry. There’s no getting away from that. So what juries and judges appear to be doing is taking that consequence into consideration when they make determinations about guilt and they were finding adult sex offenders less likely to be guilty after South Carolina enacted its online sex offender registry than before. That meant more people were being exonerated even when they went through a trial. And we also saw very, very large increases in plea bargains from sex to non sex crimes. So once again, the victims of these adults who had engaged in sexually harmful behavior against children or women, primarily, would either be able to plead or if they weren’t able to plead, if they retain the sex offense charge all the way through the conviction process, they were less likely to be found guilty. So we don’t find much support for these policies for adults or for children. I will say that for children, what we have found are remarkably iatrogenic or that’s a fancy way of saying negative, unintended negative effects of these policies.
Adam: Obviously the sort of protection of children is kind of the highest moral charge of police. I mean, I think most people intuitively would view that as being kind of, uh, intuitively on a gut level, the most important issue. So if it is in fact true that the things that we are doing to quote unquote “do something” are in fact having either no effect or the opposite effect, it seems like it’s difficult to have a somewhat rational conversation about this because obviously the last thing you ever want to do is look like you’re soft on sex crime. So can we talk about the kind of public perception issue and what the differences between an evidence based or as you mentioned, which I want to talk about, prevention based versus this kind of stigmatizing hang ’em high mentality.
Elizabeth Letourneau: Sure. I’m happy to talk about that. But first I’d like to mention what we found does happen when you subject children to registration. So what I’ve already talked about is what doesn’t happen. They’re not any less likely to re-offend because almost none of them are going to re-offend anyways and they’re not any less likely to attempt an initial offense. There is no preventive effect of juvenile registration. There’s no community safety impact of juvenile registration that anyone’s been able to find. We ran a study where we compared children, all of them had been, all of them were in treatment for having sexually offended. Only some of them were subjected to sex offender registration and notification requirements depending on the state they lived in, their age perhaps, or the type of the offense they committed and we compared these registered kids with non-registered kids on a number of outcomes. Again, they had all committed sex offenses. They were all in treatment. We controlled for differences like differences in age and differences in type of offense, and after we did that, what we found is the children who were subjected to registration reported many harmful and negative outcomes. These include increased depression symptoms, increased anxiety symptoms, but the really striking finding that we found, the really striking result that we found, is that children who are registered compared to children, who again, had committed sex offenses but were not subjected to registration, children who are registered were four times more likely to attempt suicide, not just to think about suicide, but to attempt to take their own lives. And they were five times more likely to be approached by an adult for sex and twice as likely to have been sexually assaulted, a contact sexual offense victimization in the past year.
Adam: What’s the causal mechanism there?
Elizabeth Letourneau: Well, you know, we can hypothesize, the study was not designed to identify causal mechanisms.
Elizabeth Letourneau: However, you know, we’ve got some, what I think are logical hypotheses about what might be happening, but I want to point out for your listeners first, just the, the real irony here, and I think it goes beyond irony, but the juvenile registration was designed to keep children safe from sexual assault. And our study indicates that juvenile registration is associated with increased risk for being victimized by sexual assault. It increases the very thing that it is supposed to be reducing or protecting children from.
Adam: Right. Can you speculate as to why you think that is or is that not-?
Elizabeth Letourneau: Yeah, no, I am certainly, we do speculate in our, in the manuscripts that we’ve published with these data. In terms of the attempted suicide, we think the extreme stigma of being labeled a sex offender is what drives that. That the stigma of the sex offender label is we suspect even greater than the stigma of being labeled a murderer. I think there’s not any other label that carries as much stigma as a stigma of sex offender. So we think that is likely driving the suicide attempts and there may be other things, you know, associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety. In terms of making it more likely that a registered child will be approached by an adult for sex and will sustain a sexual assault victimization. There it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on. Registries provide adults with information on children who have by definition engaged in sexual behavior.
Adam: Oh. Yeah.
Elizabeth Letourneau: And registries often include the home address of the child.
Adam: Oh, wonderful.
Elizabeth Letourneau: And registration has the effect of making these children seem of lesser value, that they are other than us. They are different, they are worse than us. And when you make a child seem less than fully human, it makes it much more likely that that child will be assaulted, physically assaulted, sexually assaulted. And so basically registration both gives adults permission to abuse children by making them seem as if they don’t, they’re not worthy of empathy or support or consideration and care and gives them the tools by telling them where they are. Also, registration requires that children come in person to register once or twice or three or four times a year. And so where they go to register is the same place where adult sex offenders go to register, right? It’s not a separate facility. And so other adult sex offenders identify these kids. Other people identify these kids as ripe for victimization. And so I think that is what’s going on in terms of why we see registered children reporting more actual assaults and more attempted assaults by adults and non-registered children.
Adam: When we talk about preventative measures versus punitive measures, can you talk about what you sort of mean by that and what advocates mean when they say focusing on prevention rather than punitive measures?
Elizabeth Letourneau: Sure. We want to prevent harm from occurring to children in the first place. We also want to prevent children from engaging in harmful behavior in the first place, right? That’s always going to be better in terms of preventing harm from occurring, which aligns with morality and human rights. We don’t want children to sustain abuse. We don’t want children to engage in abusive behaviors. It is almost always more cost effective to prevent crime from happening than to deal with the consequences of crime, whether it’s for the person who committed the crime or the person victimized by the crime. So there are some really good reasons why we would focus on prevention. We focus on prevention for most other public health problems and certainly for all other problems that children face. So every other type of abuse that children are at risk for, whether it’s child physical abuse or child neglect or bullying or adolescent suicide or any of that, we address those issues with a prevention approach, a public health prevention approach. We still hold parents accountable if they assault their children, but we put lots of resources into working with parents, new parents, at risk parents, first time parents to make it less likely that they will abuse their kids in the first place. We do the same thing for bullying. We have good well-validated interventions that we implement school wide in K through 12 schools to reduce the likelihood that kids will engage in bad behavior with one another. We take that prevention approach to so many areas, but we do not take it to the prevention of child sexual abuse. I think we are content to work with child sexual abuse after the fact because we’ve convinced ourselves that people who engage in these behaviors are monsters, that they’re different than us, that they are impervious to prevention efforts. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is just abundantly untrue. We know these kinds of behaviors can be prevented and we know they should be prevented. Unfortunately, we put all of our resources into after the fact punishment and we don’t put any resources into before the fact prevention. And I’ll just give you one example of the kind of resources that go into criminal justice after the fact interventions that just don’t do anything to help that victim that was already harmed. We spend as a nation $6.4 billion to lock up sex offenders in prisons and in sex offender civil commitment facilities every year. Every year we as taxpayers put $6.4 billion into locking up sex offenders, and that may seem fine, but we put $0 million, literally almost $0 million as taxpayers into the prevention of child sexual abuse. So we need our federal government to step up and to fund prevention efforts, even if they don’t fund them at the rate of punishment. Even to take a percent of that amount or less than a percent of that amount and put some money into prevention is something that we have been arguing for a few years now and we’re starting to get some traction. The current House Labor HHS Appropriations Bill, which hasn’t yet been passed, but the House bill includes $2 million for child sexual abuse prevention funding. We don’t know what the Senate is going to include in their bill. It hasn’t been released yet, but we hope that we’ll also see some money and that eventually we’ll see some federal funding that supports the development, rigorous evaluation and dissemination of effective prevention programs.
Adam: Dr. Letourneau thank you so much. This has been extremely informative.
Elizabeth Letourneau: It’s been my absolute pleasure. Thank you, Adam.
Adam: Thank you to our guests Guy Smith and Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau. Remember you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Twitter and Facebook page and as always you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Cassi Feldman. I’m your host Adam Johnson. We’ll see you next week.