Jill Levenson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Human Services, Lynn University
Richard Tewksbury, Ph.D., Professor - University of Louisville, Department of Justice Administration, Louisville, KY
Unofficial Final Copy from American Journal of Criminal Justice (PDF file)
The purpose of this study was to better understand the impact of sex offender registration and notification laws on the family members of registered sex offenders (RSO). An online survey was utilized to collect data from 584 family members across the U.S. Employment problems experienced by the RSO, and subsequent financial hardships, emerged as the most pressing issue identified by family members. The likelihood of housing disruption was correlated with residential restriction laws; larger buffer distances led to increased frequencies of housing crisis. Family members living with an RSO were more likely to experience threats and harassment by neighbors. Children of RSOs reportedly experienced adverse consequences including stigmatization and differential treatment by teachers and classmates. More than half had experienced ridicule, teasing, depression, anxiety, fear, or anger. Unintended consequences can impact family members’ ability to support RSOs in their efforts to avoid recidivism and successfully reintegrate. Implications for criminal justice policy and practice are discussed.
Keywords: registered sex offender, family members, Megan’s Law, sexual abuse
Levenson, J. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2009). Collateral damage: Family members of registered sex
offenders. American Journal of Criminal Justice.
Available online: HERE (PDF File)
This study is one of the first to survey family members of sex offenders to understand the
ways in which they are affected by SORN laws. Employment limitations and subsequent
financial problems emerged as the most pressing issue for family members, followed by housing
concerns. The likelihood of housing disruption was higher for those family members restricted
by larger residential buffer zone laws. Clearly, disruptions in employment and housing can affect
others with whom an offender lives. As well, a substantial minority of family members
experienced threats, harassment, or property damage due to public disclosure about the sex
Civil sanctions imposed on criminal offenders are sometimes called invisible
punishments and often result in barriers to reintegration (Travis, 2005). The primary objectives
of the criminal justice system are to punish offenders and protect communities, but rehabilitation
and successful reentry are also important goals. It is well known that the stigma of felony
conviction can hinder partaking in prosocial roles such as employment, education, parenting, and
property ownership, all of which are vital to an offender’s investment in conformity to social
norms and therefore to desistance from crime (Uggen, Manza, & Behrens, 2004). Invisible
punishments and their consequences (i.e. underemployment, lack of affordable housing,
obstacles to assuming adult and parental roles) have a documented impact on families of criminal
offenders (Hirsch, Dietrich, Landau, Schneider, Ackelsberg, Bernstein-Baker, & Hohenstein,
2002; Travis & Waul, 2003), but less obvious is the stigma felt by them.
The public disclosure to which sex offenders are exposed is unprecedented, and therefore
SORN is unique in the degree to which invisible sanctions are inadvertently imposed upon and
experienced by loved ones of offenders. As such, SORN creates impacts that are broad, and as
illustrated in this study, deep and lasting. Family members, even those who do not live with
RSOs, experience harassment, threats, violence, economic hardships, difficulties with housing,
and psychological stresses simply because they are related to a sex offender. Whether intended
or not, the criminal justice system, via SORN policies, extends punishments to a wide swath of
society beyond sex offenders.
In particular, the impact on children of sex offenders is worthy of contemplation.
Whether we like it or not, many sex offenders have children of their own, and they encounter
stigmatization as a result of their parent’s RSO status. What remains unclear is the myriad of
ways in which these experiences will impact their psychosocial development, their interpersonal
relationships, and their sense of self. Furthermore, the ways in which their relationship with their
RSO parent is impacted is crucial and can influence their own future criminal and non-criminal
behaviors. Those who are truly without culpability – and many times already victims – are
punished through SORN polices and their consequences.
Not surprisingly, family members found little value in notification and did not believe
that it contributes in meaningful ways to public safety. Noteworthy, however, is the miniscule
number of subjects who believed that their RSO could be at risk to reoffend (This is a misleading synopsis in this report. US Department of Justice statistics show that the actual recidivism rates range between 3 and 5 % - search this blog for "truth over myth" for links )
Implications for criminal justice policy are clear. SORN laws have extended sanctions
and their negative economic, social, and psychological consequences to others associated with
sex offenders. A result may be that these laws ultimately impel loved ones to distance themselves
from the RSO in order to limit, manage, or cope with their own experiences of collateral
consequences. In turn, such disengagement will leave some offenders with fewer sources of
economic and social support and a weaker safety net for inhibiting recidivism. As a result,
current policies may have effects that contradict their intentions: by imposing losses on RSOs’
family members, the conditions that work to inhibit reoffending are weakened or removed,
potentially facilitating recidivism.
Furthermore, the Adam Walsh Act expands registration requirements by lengthening
duration periods, including juveniles as young as 14 years old, and mandating that states conform
to an offense-based categorization scheme which inflates the number of registrants classified as
high-risk. Such a system is well-intentioned but misguided. The result will be an exponentially
growing number of RSOs who are publicly identified for longer periods of time; of course this
will also proliferate the impact of SORN laws on family members. Some sex offenders do indeed
have a higher probability of recidivism, and therefore community safety is more likely to be
enabled when states adopt empirically derived risk assessment methods to validly, reliably, and
discriminately identify high risk offenders (Grove & Meehl, 1996; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon,
2005). By reserving public disclosure for those who pose the greatest threat, resources can be
more efficiently distributed, citizens can be appropriately warned, reintegration obstacles for
offenders can be minimized, and collateral consequences for family members can be diminished.
In contrast to the guidelines set forth by the Adam Walsh Act, evidence-based sex crime policies
which employ empirically validated risk assessment strategies would be more apt to accomplish
goals of public safety and successful reintegration.
This study does, however, represent a pioneering effort to quantitatively understand the
experiences of loved ones of registered sex offenders. Their voices have been, to date, largely
unheard, and they are among the collateral victims of sexually violent crime. SORN policies
have become increasingly restrictive over the years, exposing sex offenders and their families to
public scrutiny and placing severe limits on sex offenders’ employment, housing, and academic
opportunities. Certainly, these policies were designed to protect the public from sexually
dangerous individuals, but the collateral consequences of the laws to others were presumably
unanticipated. Given that there is little research to suggest that community notification laws
result in decreased recidivism (Prescott & Rockoff, 2008), their impediments to offenders’
reintegration and their consequences for innocent others deserve thoughtful consideration.