The War on Sex Offenders Is the New War on Drugs, Which Means It's About Race
"We have this enormous phenomenon that no one is paying attention to."
More than 750,000 Americans are currently registered as sex offenders. That is a fact. But that is just about the only hard fact when it comes to sex offenders, a group that social scientists struggle to secure funding to study and that communities react to with predictable opprobrium. It’s an untenable situation and it’s getting worse. Trevor Hoppe, a sociology professor at the University at Albany, has documented the growth of the sex offender class between 2005 and 2013 for Law and Social Inquiry and found compounding failures on the part of the legal system.
Hoppe says black men are being convicted of sex crimes in alarming numbers even as the number of prosecuted drug offenses in that community dips. He also says that little guidance or oversight is being provided post-verdict, making the sex offender registry a mechanism for distributing shame. Inverse talked with him about necessary policy shifts, the way inequality is structured in the system, and how we don’t want to know what happens to sex offenders.
What motivated you to pursue this research?
I have been interested in how the state controls sexuality for years. As a scientist, when I think about these things, I want to be able to cite the social science literature and talk about these policies in a way that is grounded. I want more than anecdotal evidence.
Can you speak on this relationship between trying to catch criminal sex offenders and what I’ve read you describe as the “irrational panic” there is in the United States when it comes to sex and gender?
We’re seeing, like in other areas of criminal justice, a disproportionate impact on African Americans, particularly African American men. That is consistent in other areas. What is driving that trend is not the subject of my research but I think there are lots of studies out there that suggest that the way policing operates is guiding either explicitly or implicitly by bias based on race — specifically race and gender.
I think it’s hard for us to defend people who are accused of sexual offenses, whether they be violent or non-violent offenses. We don’t have language to talk about why it’s not a good idea to treat sex offenses as different than other kinds of crime, even though that is what the law is doing. The law is saying these kinds of crimes are offenses that are specific and different, and therefore we need to control them in a specific and different kind of way. But when it comes down to it, a person who commits a sex offense is not a categorically different kind of offender that needs a different kind of punitive system.
If you think about it, for instance, people convicted of violent crimes that are not sexual based, there’s no requirement that once they get out of prison, they have to notify all their neighbors that they were convicted of a violent offense. That’s just not something we do in the United States for crimes. That’s where I think we need social scientists and advocates to think more carefully about the implications of creating this entirely separate system of control for people convicted of sexual-based offenses.
It seems important that we speak more specifically about what’s happening to African American men. You say the “war on sex offenders” has gained steam as the “war on drugs” has faded. What exactly does that mean?
What I think we have here is a system built on the back of the anxiety and fear of sex and sexual based crimes, being funneled into a pre-existing institution, the criminal justice system, which disproportionately impacts African American men. The fact that we have more African American men being disproportionately impacted should come as no surprise because we know that they’re entangled in the criminal justice system at greater rates. If we’re interested in inequality, and we’re interested in racism in the American criminal justice system, then we also have to talk about this war on sex offenders, which is largely being ignored in this conversation the country is having on mass incarceration.
It has to be part of the conversation because most of what we’ve been talking about has been the war on drugs, which has had devastating effects on communities of color. If we’re only trying to think about reforming policies that regulate drugs, we’re not really going to address all the ways that inequality is structured in the system.
You’re saying our failure to talk about the specifics of sex crimes puts those accused of them at risk in our criminal justice system?
We hear “sex offender” we immediately think of pedophile and rapists, even though that’s not the full population of the people who are in that community. We just don’t have a useful language to talk about those crimes, other than “lock em up and throw away the key.”
So where did you get the data?
I was very lucky in this case because a colleague at the University of Washington, Tacoma, Alissa Ackerman, had already generated the data that I used to analyze the registries. What she did was build a web scraping application that basically scraped the data from all the state registries, everything that was listed on the individuals who were publicly registered on the state sex offender’s registry. She very generously agreed to let me use that data to analyze the demographic characteristics. I was able to run the numbers pretty quickly.
This doesn’t sound like a very expensive study. You allude to the lack of funding for this sort of research. Do you think that results in bad policy?
The major funders of social science research are very squeamish when it comes to this kind of research. I was very lucky in this case because the data collected by my colleague was fairly accessible. She didn’t have to spend a million dollars surveying people to generate that data. If we did have to spend a million dollars, no one would put up the money. Frankly, I don’t think we want to know what happens to sex offenders. We’d rather not think about it.
That squeamishness and uneasiness is driving a virtual lack of literature even though we’re now up to almost 800,000 people being registered sex offenders, an enormous population of people. Meanwhile, you can go into scientific literature and find studies that affect eight people in the state of Utah. This goes to show that we have this enormous population that no one is paying attention to.
Now that your work is out there for everyone to digest, what comes from it?
As we saw with the war on drugs, change does not happen overnight. Over the past 30 to 40 years, social scientists have demonstrated the uneven effects of the law when it comes to African Americans. So, I am under no illusion that this one study is going to be the only thing to get policy makers, advocates, our brothers and sisters, to think more carefully about these policies. But I think it’s about beginning the conversation, which I expect will take many, many years to get through on a state level, and then on a national level.
I do hope that this work raises the issue, gets it on the table, and then more people start thinking, “Hey, this is something we might want to study. This is something we might want to look more closely at as policy makers.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.