By David S. Prescott, LICSW & Alissa Ackerman, Ph.D
An ever-emerging body of scientific research has found that punitive responses to crime don’t actually decrease risk. The findings are so clear as to not be uncontroversial: punishment is not anything more than punitive. While punishment can have its place, we should never consider it a meaningful deterrent from crime, a form or rehabilitation, or even a fully adequate response for those who have been abused. While one can easily find media accounts of people who want those who abuse to suffer as a result of their actions, there are many more who simply wanted the abuse to stop and the person who abused them to get help. Sadly, their accounts rarely lend themselves to sensational media. Indeed, excellent documentaries of the results of America’s legal system, such as Pervert Park and Untouchable garner some attention and then too often disappear from our sustained awareness.
Likewise, what seems to go further unnoticed is that even our “intermediate sanctions” – the term that criminologists have used for measures such as registration, community notification, and residence restrictions – also produce no appreciable effects on the re-offense risk of those who sexually abuse. Many have fought these laws in court, and while some have prevailed, the courts have consistently ruled that sex crimes policies are not criminal sanctions. They are civil in nature, so many of the arguments used to fight them in court hold no water.
Let us be clear: there are no appreciable positive changes with respect to re-offense risk that have resulted from these policies. To this point, there have been no documented improvements as a result of these policies beyond occasional (and frankly, highly infrequent) anecdotes.
Followers of the risk assessment literature are aware of many of the primary risk factors for re-offense: abuse-related sexual interests, high levels of psychopathic traits, problematic responses to stress, impulsivity, all alone and in combination can serve to increase risk. It is easy to forget, however, the risks involved in the chronic social isolation experienced by people who have abused and are now attempting to reintegrate into society (or integrate for the first time).
The isolation and lack of connection experienced by registered people has been documented in the literature for over a decade. Most recently, Dr. Danielle Bailey of University of Texas in Tyler has written that the isolation experienced by registered people also extends to their significant others. Importantly, loved ones often experience disenfranchised grief when they learn about the sexual abuse that has transpired. They must learn to adjust to life after losing the person they thought they knew.
Unlike family members who experience loss as a result of a medical diagnosis such as Alzheimer’s or stroke, family members who support a registrant have little social or community support to process their grief. This leads them into further isolation. The prosocial bond formed between the registrant and the significant other may be disrupted or it may fully disintegrate as a result.
You may be wondering how punitive measures and intermediate sanctions impact people who have experienced sexual abuse. For starters, most people who have experienced sexual victimization know the person who committed the abuse. According to Dr. Rachel Bandy’s research, coalitions against sexual assault caution against current sex crimes policies because they have the capacity to silence people who have experienced victimization. First, because the person who victimized them is often someone they know and love, they are hesitant to come forward knowing that doing so could result in a lifetime of mandates and hardships. Second, most people who have experienced sexual victimization see no reflection of themselves in current laws. Finally, current policies do nothing to promote healing for people who have experienced abuse, and, in fact, these policies may have detrimental impacts on the healing process.
The forgotten risk of isolation and disconnection stem far beyond people who have sexually abused. It permeates families and communities. It silences people who have experienced sexual victimization. Human beings are social animals. We are meant to be in close relationship with others. Research shows that social isolation is associated with health risks and early death!
And it begs the question: what is our end goal? Do we want to decrease sexual victimization? Do we want to feel safe? Or do we actually want to be safe?