LARGE RACIAL DISPARITIES IN SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY, PROF. FINDS
A University at Albany assistant professor has begun looking into how sex offender registries reveal the inequalities of the criminal justice system.
The findings of Trevor Hoppe, an assistant professor of sociology, have been published in his paper, “Punishing Sex: Sex Offenders and the Missing Punitive Turn in Sexuality Studies.” The study indicates that approximately 1 percent of African American males in the United States are registered sex offenders while white males are registered at approximately half that rate.
The growth of sex offender registries reflects “a new form of punishment developed by the state that is specifically tailored to punishing sex,” according to Hoppe who is concerned with the disproportionate amount of attention that the criminal justice system funnels into sex offender registries.
Although research into how the criminal justice system disproportionally impacts African American men is not new, Hoppe’s study aims to show that sex offender registries are a manifestation of this pattern. By drawing attention to the impact of inequality in sex offender registries, he is trying to garner attention to an area of the criminal justice system that some social scientists have neglected.
Once listed as a sex offender, one is generally registered for life; the only way they can get off the list is by deportation or death. Hoppe contrasted the permanent stigma on sex offenders to the lack of a stigma in a murderer’s status.
In many instances, when a sex offender moves to a new neighborhood, flyers will be posted to alert residents of the offender’s status, but this does not happen when a murderer moves to a new neighborhood.
This comparison “reveals the panic around sex that drives the system and it’s nonsensical. We’re ruining people’s lives and I don’t think we have good reason to,” Hoppe said.
Hoppe noted that there have been declines in the incarceration rates of sex offenders, which may or may not be related to the increase in attention to the war on sex, which takes form in the expansion of sex offender registries.
Although the first sex offender registries emerged in California in 1947, they remained private until the 1990s. It was in the 1990s that a series of laws emerged requiring the publication of sex offender registries online. These laws were included in the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which were named after the children who were victims.
Hoppe’s research has been published shortly after Brock Turner’s Stanford rape case. Turner is a white male who was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault. Last month he received an early release from jail after serving only three months of his six-month sentence. This sparked outrage on social media, especially among females and arose questions about the role his race played in with his early release. After his release, Turner was required to register as a sex offender for life.
Regarding Turner’s case, Hoppe said that specific cases do not necessarily represent the whole picture. Instead, it is important to consider the population level and the systematic treatment of people to conclude whether the system is discriminative.
Hoppe’s approach to his research included using a web application from a colleague at the University of Washington, Tacoma to gather data from sex offender registry websites. The application collected demographic data from 49 states in July 2012. His data does not include Maine or Washington D.C. because these locations did not report the race of sex offenders.
As he continues his research on sex offender registries, Hoppe will look at how many people are registered sex offenders for life and the impact that will have on the growth of the system. The professor hopes his research will help students think broadly about the criminal justice system and not merely in one area of it.