Chris Uggen's Blog: killing sex offenders, volume II

Monday, April 17, 2006

killing sex offenders, volume II

a vigilante gunned down two released sex offenders last august in bellingham, washington. this sunday, joseph l. gray and william elliott were shot to death in maine, apparently by a young canadian man who shot himself when surrounded by officers. once again, the press cites a state sex offender registry as leading the killer to the victims.

both mr. gray and mr. elliott were listed on maine's online registry of convicted sex offenders. one can access the offender's name, address, date of birth, height, weight, and place of employment, as well as a color photograph. i learned that mr. elliott lived at 953 main street in east corinth, he was last convicted in 2002, served four months in jail, and had been on probation since that time. similar detail was provided for mr. gray, who was last convicted in massachusetts in 1992.

as a i wrote last year, the bellingham murderer sent a hand-written note to the seattle times, detailing his crimes and how he targeted the offenders. here's what the since-convicted killer wrote on the subject:

"the State of Washington, like many states now lists sexual deviants on the Net. And on most of these sites it shares with us what sexual crimes these men have been caught for, and most are so sick you wonder how they can be free ... In closing, we cannot tell the public so-and-so is 'likely' going to hurt another child, and here is his address then expect us to sit back and wait to see what child is next"

in a forthcoming article with jeff manza and melissa thompson, i ask whether felons constitute a criminal class, a status group, or a caste (at the time, maine was actually providing less detailed information online than states such as florida). we argue that caste-like relations best apply to hyperstigmatized sex offenders such as mr. gray and mr. elliott.

in my opinion, these murders contribute to the prevailing sense of hopelessness and permanent stigmatization felt by sex offenders, whether serving a life sentence in prison or a spell of probation for a less serious offense. in this regard, i've got nothing to add beyond what i wrote last fall:

even years before their scheduled release, both male and female prisoners have told me they feared "the internet" and public availability of information about them. rest assured that the bellingham murder story will quickly make the rounds of every TV room and sex offender unit in state penitentiaries. it is not a story of deterrence that will keep them from future crime. it is not a story of redemption or martyrdom that will give them strength as they work through the tough times. it is instead a story of the hysterical vigilante lying in wait, a story that embodies their fears about life after prison and their dim prospects for ever becoming a normal citizen in a community. and it makes them wonder why the hell they should go to treatment.

do such registries prevent more crime than they cause? who should be listed and for how long? in the name of public safety, dangerous information about many of us could be posted online -- is there a compelling rationale for listing sex offenders and not murderers or arsonists or drunken drivers? is there anything in your past that your neighbors ought to know about?


At 4:27 PM, Blogger Mike W. said...

This seems like all the labeling but with none (or little) of the secondary deviance. Has anyone written on this (outside of your forthcoming piece)?

At 8:36 PM, Blogger Jay said...

Hello there i live in Bellingham and it quite a tragedy what happened with that shooting but others may say that it was justified? What do you think?

At 10:33 PM, Anonymous chris said...

mike, there's a large interdisciplinary literature on sex offending, but the sociologists have been way too quiet. i argued in the criminologist that the next durkheim is likely gathering data at community notification meetings right now. that said, it would take real guts to write a dissertation on sex offending today.

jay, i think the bellingham shootings were murder, plain and simple. in my opinion, murder is rarely justified.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Beth said...

I agree, more needs to be written on the labeling of sex offenders. There also needs to be some sort of mechanism to remove names from these lists. One person has been sucessful in MO. Here is a link to the story.

Great blog!

At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I doubt there's another Durkheim in data collection but if there was I suspect this critter would be measuring the community satisfaction and finding that community notification would be more functional if strengthened. And would it be a Durkheim or an Erikson? Would it tell us how sex offenders reflects community and it's changes?

I'm glad there was no new Durkheim lurking at lynchings in the heyday of Jim Crow and thus finding killing negroes was a great community builder. We need no new Durkheims to muddy the waters.

The sex offender registry is a state sanctioned vigilante action. It invites and promotes an extra-judicial form of punishment. Popping the buggers is simply one point on the continuum.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous chris said...

ok, anon. with the waters so muddied already, however, i'd think a little durkheimian attention to collective effervescence and community solidarity might be productive. it may be the case, as al cohen once said, that 'men are closest to their brothers when they join in stoning others.' erikson might help explain why sex offenders are the particular targets of 'state-sanctioned vigilante action,' and other extreme sanctions that would be unthinkable for other groups.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Henry said...

All what this list does is to promote haterd and discrimination.
For when a person gets out of jail or prison for any crime. Their debt to society is paid in full and their criminal record to be completely exspunged. Since these listings were used to commit major crimes (felonies), the states should also be charged with the crime as well including premedination and being an accessory to it. Teaching the respect for all life will help everyone.


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