Chris Uggen's Blog: gosh, margy, why don't you tell us what you really think?

Monday, September 26, 2005

gosh, margy, why don't you tell us what you really think?

when i first began studying the collateral consequences of felony convictions in the 1990s, there were few authoritative sources on the practice. one of the best was a 1996 50-state report by then-U.S. pardon attorney margaret colgate love. margy served from 1990 to 1997 under presidents bush (I) and clinton (I), and she always provides a tough non-partisan critique of any administration's pardon record. more recently, she prepared a great clemency "resource guide" that offers a starting point for anyone seeking to restore their rights after a felony conviction (more personally, i should add, she helped me make sense of the differing rules governing felon voting rights and their restoration in each state).

today's crimprof blog features an op-ed by ms. love on the new national sex offender public registry. Her main concerns are (1) the registry's data quality; and, (2) the absence of controls on its use. while some hail the registry as a "proactive and meaningful step in protecting a child's life," the former pardon attorney takes a different view -- calling it a "half-baked mean-spirited incitement to vigilante justice."

gosh, margy, why don't you tell us what you really think?

Here are some highlights of ms. love's editorial:
... [it] relies entirely upon unvetted state registries that are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate
... most of [the offenders listed] had very dated and minor convictions, and had had no adverse contact with the law for decades...their houses and offices, marked with a little red flag like they used to put on the door of a plague house in the middle ages.
... outrageous that the federal government -- the Justice Department no less -- would rush to publish a list like this without 1) taking any responsibility for the accuracy of the information on it or warning about its shortcomings; or 2) giving the public any guidance at all about how they are supposed to use it.
... the clear suggestion that all 500,000 registered sex offenders in the United States are "predators" is one of the most irresponsible I've seen come out of the Justice Department, ever.

... the Attorney General is looking into how the FBI can share its criminal history information ...the FBI’s information is almost as unreliable ... [leading to] the same categorical discrimination
... The Justice Department should be trying to address the important privacy and due process issues raised, rather than leading the charge to stir up a public witch-hunt.
... The people most hurt by it are those who are already down and are easy to victimize.
... There are labor organizations and advocacy groups working on the important privacy and due process issues raised by these initiatives, and Human Rights Watch has written a letter to the Attorney General expressing concern about the Sex Offender Registry. Where are the lawyers?

i have not investigated the registry (beyond looking up my neighborhood), but i am troubled by ms. love's report and opinion on its use. but this is a call-to-arms for lawyers -- where are the sociologists and criminologists? i'm afraid it would be a pretty lonely crusade (that might land one in prison if certain movies are to be believed). i'm revising a piece with jeff manza and melissa thompson on ex-felons as a caste-like status group. it seems far-fetched until you see such registries in action and consider their easy extension beyond sex offenders. are sex offenders so different from, say, murderers that we wouldn't create a more comprehensive registry? it could easily encompass anyone convicted (or arrested -- the private search firms use arrest data) on felonies (why not misdemeanors, as long as we have the data?) as an adult (aww heck, why should the juvenile court hoard all those records down in the basement?). the notion of a permanent stain or stigma seems ever more plausible to me in an age of free-and-easy information.

paradoxically, we now have the technology to apply a permanent mark at the very historical moment that life-course criminology establishes that everybody desists from crime. so, at the risk of oversimplifying, here's how i see the mismatch: there are social, political, and (most importantly, in my view) technological pressures toward treating criminality as a fixed characteristic of individuals, even as the science paints a picture of malleability and movement away from crime in adulthood. such pressures will clearly frustrate reintegrative efforts, but unlike ms. love i don't see a way out of the dilemma -- justice department database or not, the information systems genie seems to be out of the bottle. i think the better long-term plan might be for sociologists and criminologists to attempt to provide an unflinching, evidence-based assessment of risk across different offense groups and the relative costs and benefits of stigmatization and reintegration.


At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Ryan said...

This discussion of sex offenders raises a few questions/issues for me:
1) What does the research say about the likelihood of sex offenders committing new sex crimes versus the probability of non-sex offenders leaving prison and committing sex crimes? This would seem important, as it dictates where we should be looking. I wonder if research has examined this in much detail.

2) There seems so little empirical work on the effectiveness of registries. I find only a few small scale studies in the literature. Is this because it’s such a “touchy” topic?

3) Chris’ last comment on evidence-based risk assessments seems counter to another idea emerging out of legal theory. As suggested by his title “Against Prediction,” Bernard Harcourt (I confess, I like most of his work) advocates almost the opposite (albeit with some qualifications; see U of Chicago Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper #94). This would be a great debate at a future conference or other venue.

At 9:42 AM, Anonymous chris said...

hey ryan, i wrote a little about this issue here and here, citing a bjs study. this is a quick blurb from the earlier post:

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 short, they are more likely to commit new sex crimes (or at least to be arrested for new sex crimes). still, released sex offenders accounted for 13% and released non-sex offenders accounted for 87% of the total estimated sex crimes committed by all the prisoners released in 1994. of those arrested, sex offenders were also less likely to be charged with felonies (75%) than non-sex offenders (84%) and less likely to be convicted (24%) than non-sex offenders (48%).

i agree completely with your second point -- i think a "new durkheim" is needed to study stigma and the collective conscience and registries provides an ideal research setting. i'll have to check out the harcourt argument. my point was simply that most activists on the left and the right don't even want to look at the data. so, we get "pollyannas" painting a picture of the deviant as pure victim and "law n' order" types painting a picture of the deviant as monster. i'm hoping that social scientists can add their voices and evidence to the debates

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Penn State Punk said...

Honest question.... if you had a young, smart, new graduate student, would you suggest to this "new durkheim" that he/she study sex offenders?

Do you think it could hurt their career? In particular their job prospects?

At 10:09 AM, Anonymous chris said...

punk, i'd give fair warning on the dangers of reflected stigma, but say that "if you can pull this off you'll have a killer diss." in such cases, it puts a greater burden on the advisor to help the student frame the study in a sociologically meaningful way. but, yeah, i'd say if you want to study stigma you've gotta take it to the core. i might also try to co-author something safer with the student to hedge her bets on the job market.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Penn State Punk said...

Maybe its a good topic for one famous professor and two of his former students who now need tenure!

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Penn State Punk said...

It is sort of a different discussion, but do you think you have more "freedom to advise" given your stature? Were you more cautious with advice earlier in your career? For example, with your first student(s)?

If a graduate student asked me about it, I think I would be really worried about sending them down a path that might lead to some additional difficulties. Its so hard (unless you are Ryan!) to get a job, I would worry about the student losing some departments because of the political nature of the subject...... despite the cool idea. Perhaps I am over thinking it, or just worried about how to “advise”…..

At 11:02 AM, Anonymous chris said...

punk, my stature is only 5'10" but i see your point. most are probably more cautious in advising before tenure, but remember that you aren't alone at psu. advisors also need advice and you will have great senior colleagues around as well. before finalizing things with students, i'll often ask colleagues whether they'd be "interested in a good study of X." if nobody but me is remotely interested, i might suggest that the student write a low-investment paper on the subject rather than a diss.

ps -- what's a former student? all who enter remain within the love covenant, right? :)

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Penn State Punk said...

Yes, my first thought would always be to ask a senior colleague if I thought it was risky for the student....... but I hadn't thought about what to do if the idea was just plain boring.

Indeed, the love covenant is never broken.... especially for the first to enter!

At 11:11 AM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

Washington state, a dubious leader in labeling and stigmatizing sex offenders, has now created "sex-offender-free zones" to "supplement" their public notification system. Can criminologists bring in a voice of reason and influence policy? Doubtful, according to one state rep:
"People don't necessarily want statistical analysis. They want security for their children -- real or imagined," he said.

Here's the link to today's story:

At 1:32 PM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

I noticed the link was broken in my last post. Here's the full information:

At 4:37 PM, Anonymous chris said...

wow, doc, this issue keeps pulling me back in. it seems to be fairly common practice to impose such housing restrictions as a condition of parole but not usually after the sentence has been fulfilled. i guess i don't have a problem with restricting housing choices while people are under supervision, as long as the restrictions are narrowly tailored. still, it is funny how there aren't any "arsonist-free zones" yet, but "sex-offender-free zones" (and drug-free zones) are routinely accepted.

At 11:22 PM, Anonymous Ochen K. said...

A dumb question from the non-sociologist among us:

Chris, I’ve noticed you’ve used “arsonist” a few times to make a point about differences in law and attitude. What does “arsonist” mean in this contest? Are arsonists largely white, and therefore it shows racial inequity? Are they middle class showing class disparity? Or do you just have a fondness for arsonists?

Ochen K.

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous chris said...

hey ochen, it isn't a dumb question at all -- arson stems from my personal history. i once lived next to a halfway house that was poorly supervised. they specialized in court-ordered clients with mental health issues, which was fine, but they had a couple residents who liked to start fires in the neighborhood. i worried quite a bit about this when my kids were sleeping or when i was out of town. so, arsonists just score high on my personal "fear of crime" meter. you are correct that they are more likely to be white than the average convicted felon and that they come from more advantaged circumstances, but that isn't my reason for referencing them (some classes of sex offenders fit the same profile). i just use them as an example because murder is so overdone (and, truth be told, recidivism among murderers is pretty low) and because arsonists seem to share many of the characteristics of sex offenders but carry far less stigma. so, i could imagine a similar social response to arsonists (e.g., national registries, permanent classification as "compulsively dangerous predators," and civil commitment), but none of this has yet to occur.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Ochen K. said...

So do we know the social and racial profile of sex offenders? If we assume they come from more “advantaged circumstances” (wow, there’s a euphemism!), what’s the underlying cause that results in legislation and stigma? I guess I’m so used to tracing legal and social inequities back to racism and classism, it’s odd to see a similar situation of inequality for a more advantaged group. Is it an easier target for the corrections industry? Is it just hay for politicians? In my very limited experience studding similar issues, I guess I tend to believe that while greed is a major motivating force, fear is what’s behind these things. What’s the deep-rooted fear being addressed? That’s why racism and classism come up so often. Our country has such a strange relationship with sex, that I wonder if comes from there, but societal view is far from puritanical.

Has anyone written anything good on this? I’ve found a handful of links to people bringing this up as an issue, which is all Margaret Colgate has done, but not much on the underlying motives.

Ochen K.

At 7:51 PM, Anonymous chris said...

ochen, yes, i belive sex offenders are somewhat better off socioeconomically than other groups(e.g., education, income), but this is a relative advantage from a pretty low baseline. inmate surveys tell us they are also somewhat more likely to have been abused themselves than other prisoners. i think you've hit on the big issue. the hyperstigma of sex offenders clearly has some relationship to the strange way that sexual taboos are addressed or not addressed in other arenas of society. our fears also stem from desires that we can't understand. we all "get" that people rob banks because that's where the money is, but most of us can't fathom sexual desires or behaviors that seem foreign, or unappealing, or even disgusting to us. durkheim would say that sex offenders are performing an important "boundary-maintaining" function for society. here's paraphrasing kai erikson's explanation of this process in another context((literal) witch hunts):

- The deviant is one whose activities have moved outside the margins of the group...when the community makes a statement about the nature and placement of its boundaries. it tells us what evil looks like, the shapes the devil can assume.

- Boundaries are a meaningful point of reference only if they are repeatedly tested (by deviants) and defended (by representatives of the group's inner morality)

i'm not sure if that helps us explain the greater stigma of sex offenders, but i think sexual boundaries are perhaps especially likely to be contested and defended.


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