Monday, June 20, 2005

stigma II

I wrote last month about the extreme stigma of the sex offender designation. Today I'm bracing for the backlash from an AP story by Michael Hill citing me on this point. I referred Mr. Hill to Jill Levenson, who (along with Leo Cotter) published her survey of released Florida sex offenders in an issue of Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice I guest-edited on collateral sanctions (Richard Tewksbury also has a nice piece on this subject in the same issue, using data from Kentucky). Here is Mr. Hill's lead:
Clamps are coming down on released sex offenders like never before. Laws restrict where they can go, Web sites list their names, satellites track their steps. Leery neighbors and bosses force them from their homes and jobs. The full-court press that comes after high profile cases around the nation is being done for public safety. But is it possible to push sex offenders so far to the fringes actually makes them more dangerous to society?

This question seems absolutely fundamental to the scientific study of prisoner reentry and the policy move toward restorative justice. When, if ever, does social control begin to compromise rather than enhance public safety? Todd Clear and others are asking this more generally about the impact of incarceration on communities. But "sex offender" is the ideal type here -- rivaling "terrorist," "nazi," "serial killer," or "satanist" as the most stigmatized designation in contemporary American society. Both the Levenson and Cotter piece and the Tewksbury article find that sex offenders report job losses, housing problems, and threats of harassment today. Criminal justice policy toward them is clearly based on "stigmatizing" rather than "reintegrative" shaming, to adopt John Braithwaite's distinction. Of course, there are some compelling reasons for identifying and supervising this group closely. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, those convicted of sex offenses do seem to persist later in life than other sorts of criminals. Nevertheless, their 3-year rearrest rate (43% overall, 5% for new sex crimes) is lower than those convicted of other sorts of crime (68% overall, 1% for new sex crimes). So, while the flatter age profile and potential severity of their crimes may justify greater scrutiny, most of the people convicted of sex crimes do not appear to be irredeemable or "life-course persistent" offenders (at least as measured by arrest).

In my view, the application and management of stigma should be getting much more attention from sociologists. I've argued before that if any Durkheims were in grad school today, they might be gathering dissertation data at sex offender community notification meetings (observing distinctions between the normal and pathological, the sacred and profane, the exercise of collective conscience, and the effervescence of crowds). If I were advising a modern-day Durkheim, however, I might try to talk her out of such potential career suicide (steering her to a safer diss topic, such as Suicide!). Whenever an article like this appears, I always get some emails from supporters (thanking me for my "courage"), detractors (asking me how I'd feel if my family were victimized or questioning my motivations), and broadcast media (inviting me to take an indefensible position in a public debate). The issue is clearly a lightning rod, in need of some good sociological scholarship that could help guide policy, or at least help us understand our current practices.

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