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Campaigning for change: How state-level groups advocate for legislative sexual offense reform

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Published onJul 05, 2024
Campaigning for change: How state-level groups advocate for legislative sexual offense reform
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ABSTRACT

In the criminal justice field, advocacy groups work to better the circumstances for specific groups of people facing perceived injustice. While some advocacy groups have been studied extensively, one type of group – sexual offense reform advocates – has been understudied. This is particularly problematic due to stigmatization and legislative differences in how individuals convicted of sex crimes are supervised compared those convicted of non-sexual offenses. These post-conviction differences make it necessary to better understand these advocacy groups and their processes when fighting for public policy change. The current study examines qualitative interviews conducted with affiliates of a national organization that supports sex offense policy reform. Using a content analysis approach, the research sought to understand how the advocates began their advocacy efforts, the type and level of training relating to public policy reform, and the participants’ experiences interacting with lawmakers. Finally, recommendations are made to help better train membership through inexpensive means given the volunteer and non-profit status of many of these groups including training manuals and the use of legal interns.

Keywords: sexual offense policy reform, sex offenders, registry, advocacy groups, legislation


Sex offender registration notification (SORN) policies continue to hold support within communities and in turn, hold the support of legislators. Justified as a public safety tool, SORN was created notify the public of registered persons living in their communities, while allowing law enforcement the ability to monitor these individuals through routine re-registration periods (Mancini, 2014). Critics argue that these laws are emotionally driven in nature and calls for more punitive efforts are often renewed when a particularly predatory sex crime occurs or when a child is the victim of the assault (Harris et al., 2015). However, researchers have found the cost of sex offender registration is high for registered citizens, creating stigmatization and public contempt toward them (Mancini, 2014; Socia & Harris, 2016). Residency restrictions, job insecurities, and homelessness are additional examples of the harmful collateral consequences associated with required registration (Bailey & Klein, 2018; Jung et al., 2020; Kavanagh & Levenson, 2022). Furthermore, these harms are not exclusive to the registrant but also impact the lives of their loved ones and surrounding communities (Bailey, 2018). The public support of the registry has led to a growing opposition posed by advocacy groups who fight for policy reforms to protect the rights of the registered citizens post-conviction. These groups seek to support registered citizens in their daily lives by providing support groups, job assistance, and community while also advocating at the state and federal level for reform to current SORN policies (Harris et al., 2015). As sex offender advocacy groups are largely understudied in comparison to those who are registered, the purpose of this study will focus on their efforts during the legislative process while working toward registry reform.

Literature Review

Much of the sex offender legislation passed in the last three decades has been in reaction to high-profile crimes committed against children, which garnered intense media attention and resulted in calls from the public for stronger sanctions when punishing sexually motivated criminals (Meloy et al., 2013). These “memorial laws” – named for the children who were victimized – help to perpetuate the fear that all registered persons are chronic recidivists who commit the most severe crimes possible (Burchfield et al., 2014; Jenkins, 1998; Sample & Kadleck, 2008; Valier, 2005). The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994, introduced the initial registration guidelines for states to monitor those convicted of a sexual offense after the abduction and murder of 11-year old Jacob Wetterling (Brewster et al., 2013; SMART, 2023; Spoo et al., 2017). Two years later, the federal passage of Megan’s Law introduced requirements for community notification through the release of personal information about the registrants for the purpose of public safety (SMART, 2023; Spoo et al., 2017).

In 2006, The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA) greatly expanded federal sex offender registration and community notification (SORN) efforts and required states to follow suit, or lose a portion of their federal funding (Spoo et al., 2017). A limited number of states are in full, or even partial, compliance with the AWA, causing a lack of uniformity of registration procedures across different geographic jurisdictions (Bailey & Klein, 2018). Also affecting uniformity are the various legal challenges based on ex post facto and other due process violations, including a recent California appeal in which a registrant successfully argued that he should no longer be required to register after he was granted a record expungement (John Doe v. Department of Justice, 2023). In 2023, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that retroactive registration requirements are unconstitutional finding that registration places “affirmative physical restraints on SVOR [Sexual or Violent Offender Registry] registrants” and that routine contact with law enforcement to update registration information has “an effect like punishment” (Montana v. Hinman, 2023: 11). These cases are examples of the complexities of state and federal level registration requirements which provide open avenues for opponents to the registry system to fight for change.

Advocacy Group Formation

Criminal justice reform relies on advocates to speak up for the injustices that exist in the legal system. As sex offense laws were changing rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocacy groups began to form at the state and national level to help combat continued restrictions and to fight for policy reform of these policies. Previous research examined the organizational efforts of these advocacy groups and identified two types of advocacy groups – active and reactive – which both shared the common goal of enacting legislative change by providing empirical evidence to lawmakers regarding the harm that SORN policies cause (Comartin, 2015). Active groups consistently meet with lawmakers and try to enact change before bills are proposed, whereas reactive groups focus on those individuals who have already proposed change during a specific legislative session (Comartin, 2015).

One of the largest of advocacy groups focusing on sexual offense legal reform is the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (NARSOL), which officially began as the Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) organization in 2007 and began holding annual national conferences in 2010. NARSOL’s mission is to oppose “dehumanizing registries by working to eliminate the laws, policies, and practices that propagate them,” (NARSOL, 2023) and “promote[s] laws targeting harmful acts rather than entire classes of people” (NARSOL, 2023). While NARSOL’s primary focus is on national legislation, NARSOL has added numerous state-level affiliate groups and non-profits as a way to support sexual offense advocacy at both the state and national level. These groups have become established, multifaceted organizations. They provide support to registered citizens on navigating the registration process, broadcast changes in policies, laws, and procedures to those impacted, provide social opportunities for isolated registrants and their families (Bailey & Klein, 2018), and help train members how to successfully advocate for their cause. Although their advocacy efforts are widespread, limited research has been done on sexual offense advocacy groups themselves. Most of that research has focused on the benefits provided by the advocacy group to its members (Bailey, 2018; Bailey & Klein, 2018; Comartin, 2015; Klein et al., 2018; Sample et al., 2018), with limited research examining the organization and procedures of the advocacy group itself (Comartin, 2015). This gap is particularly important given the stigma and shame that is associated with the label of sexual offender, even for family members who are not registered themselves (Bailey & Klein, 2018).

Legislator Views on Sexual Offense Policies

Sexual offense reform advocacy groups and their leaders are up against a tremendous challenge due to the strong support for restrictive sexual offense laws that are perceived to reduce sexual victimization. In a study of state sponsors of sex offender bills, Meloy et al., (2013) found that roughly 89% of the lawmakers were knowledgeable that registry creates collateral consequences such as stigmatization, homelessness, unemployment and more. Additionally, 60% of the lawmakers felt as though registry laws were effective in reducing recidivism but were not able to attach their reasoning to any empirical findings (Meloy et al., 2013). Armed with inaccurate information regarding enhanced recidivism rates and the misconception that most offenders are strangers (Mancini, 2014; Sample & Kadleck, 2008), legislation has been crafted by legislators who believe erroneous information (Socia & Harris, 2016; Williams et al., 2020). Voting against legislation that is so strongly supported by the public for symbolic purposes forces the lawmaker into a position to either support the public they represent or face career suicide (Socia & Harris, 2016; Williams et al. 2020). This makes the advocacy for sexual offense legislation reform particularly challenging for those involved in the advocacy process. With the limited research on these groups to date, however, we do not have a good understanding of how the members of these organizations go about conducting their advocacy work while up against these erroneous beliefs and conceptions.

Current Study

The purpose of this study was to explore how individuals involved in sexual offense policy reform advocate their agenda with policy makers, with the goal of describing and analyzing different approaches taken by both national and state affiliated groups. While not all states have their own advocacy groups for registered individuals, this study focuses on the state-level organizations affiliated with NARSOL. To date, limited research has been conducted regarding the leadership structures of these advocacy groups and their efforts to help members to better understand their legislative reform efforts (Comartin, 2015). The current study seeks to expand the research focusing on the groups’ legislative efforts by better understanding the experiences of the leadership’s efforts advocating for change. Focusing on those individuals representing these advocacy groups, this study explores their experiences with policy reform, their training background for advocacy work, and their personal interactions with legislators. This information will allow for further understanding of the work that is being done to impact the current state of SORN policy.

Method

Research Questions

The current study sought to address the following research questions. First, what experiences does the individual have with advocating at the local, state, and national level? It was our primary goal to focus on the group’s efforts working with legislators who craft SORN legislation within their district or state. Next, how does the individual address a legislator when trying to block or promote a proposed bill relating to sex offender policy? This question was of interest to us as advocacy groups might have a routine or standardized approach when engaging in efforts to promote or oppose a bill. As a follow-up question, we asked what are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach when trying to block or promote a proposed bill? For those individuals who are working in the policy arena the most, we sought to explore why these approaches are useful and whether these individuals have experienced success using such approaches to persuade the lawmaker they are meeting with.

Next, we sought to better understand how legislators and other policy makers react to the individual’s advocacy efforts? For this research question, we hoped to explore the dynamics that exist in the relationships between the advocate and the policy maker. In other words, are the policy makers receptive to the information being presented or are they argumentative due to inherent beliefs in misconceptions regarding registered persons (i.e. recidivism myths)? Finally, we wanted to explore what events and/or situation motivated the individual’s involvement with sexual offense policy reform? As we know from prior research on advocacy samples, many members are either registrants or the family member of a registrant. Were these groups created by leadership solely to help the loved ones? Just as legislation is being crafted based on emotional responses to sexual victimization, the family members of registrants may be on similar pathways in which there is an emotional drive to help those living life on the registry.

Sample and Data Collection

The current study utilized a sample of seven adults affiliated with a state-level advocacy groups who were recruited with permission from NARSOL. The national organization sent out a recruitment email encouraging members to participate in the study and additionally, the researchers sent out individual emails to the state-level affiliates using the contact information provided on the NARSOL website. The recruitment email requested to complete a Zoom interview with the member of the advocacy group’s leadership who is predominately involved with the legislative process in their state. Emails were sent to a potential sample of twenty-one participants, with seven completing the interview (33.3% response rate). Interviews were conducted via Zoom and contained video and audio recordings for transcription purposes. All identifying information, including names, locations, and any other identifiable information, was removed from the transcripts for confidentiality purposes. Interviews lasted approximately one hour, and were semi-structured to allow for elaboration if the participant did not provide a thorough answer to the question or if a participant brought up something the researcher felt required future clarification.

The authors choose not to provide a large amount of information regarding participant demographics for our sample, as our participants are from a small population and could be identified based on their public roles within these advocacy networks. However, we had four female participants (57.1%) and three male participants (42.9%). All participants came from different advocacy groups, living and working in different states. While they have common affiliations with NARSOL, they are all unique actors in their own states. Three participants (42.9%) reside in the deep south, two participants in the Mid-West (28.5%), one from the Southern Atlantic region (14.3%), one from the Pacific Northwest (14.3%).

Data Analysis

Participant responses were analyzed using a content analysis, grouping responses deductively based on the interview questions developed (Braun & Clark, 2006). Three researchers reviewed the transcripts and coded each response based on the questions asked during the interviews. After the initial analyses were conducted, the researchers came together as a group to review the findings and to discuss any potential conflicts in the coding structure. As this was a structured interview, the coding structure followed the interview questions in format and theme. On a few occasions, participants discussed more than one topic or theme within a response for a specific question. In those instances, the reviewers had to decide which theme was the more prevalent or if the response should be coded in more than one category. This happened for six individual questions across all seven complete interviews, so reviewers had to come to a consensus in less than 5% of the total responses. This process helps to promote higher levels of inter-rater reliability as recommended by Braun and Clark (2006). Participants’ responses reported in this manuscript may contain grammatical errors, as they are reported verbatim as per the transcription created by Zoom and as confirmed by the researchers.

Results

The findings of this study help provide clarity regarding participants’ experiences advocating for sexual offense policy reform at the state and national level. Participants shared similar experiences to one another during their interactions with lawmakers, using similar tactics to persuade lawmakers to see their viewpoints on proposed policy. The consistencies between participants suggest a common goal of fighting for the rights of registered persons – often by a family member or other loved one. These close relationships with registered persons are often the catalyst which began their journey to advocating for this marginalized group. The well-documented experiences with collateral consequences extend to family members as well (Bailey & Klein, 2018; Comartin, 2015) so there is often a vested interest of these persons to fight for policy change. A more detailed explanation of the individual themes with participant quotes are discussed below.

Advocacy Beginnings

The study began by asking participants how they became involved with sexual offense reform advocacy. Of the seven participants, five (71.43%) reported that they had a family member convicted of a sexual offense and chose to advocate on behalf of their loved one. This is consistent with previous research regarding sexual offense reform advocacy groups, which found that the majority of sex offender advocacy groups are founded or lead by someone with close family ties to a registrant (Comartin, 2015).

“So I got involved when my son was adjudicated in the military for possession of child pornography, and he had asked for help with this because it was discovered on his laptop when he was in Iraq. And he told the gunny sergeant that he needed help. And he was told that he would get help when we got back, when they got back stateside. And anyway, so that didn’t happen. He was court-martialed, the whole 9 yards” (Participant No. 7)

All participants who had a registered loved one began their advocacy work directly on behalf of their child who was convicted of a sexual offense. This suggests the role of parenthood serves as a strong motivator for these individuals to work at creating a less restrictive atmosphere so as to support registered citizens successfully rebuilding their lives post-conviction. The parents of the registered people shared how they came to understand the issues attached to the registry and how their own lives were impacted by the conviction. Although not relevant to the current study, the theme of family support was strongly represented in the data analysis as well as themes of enduring public scrutiny.

For many individuals, registered life is a complex and difficult environment to maneuver with many hoops for the registrant to jump through to remain in compliance. For many of these individuals, they might struggle with where to start and how to rebuild their lives. Advocacy groups help provide that information and are a source of social support for many when the registration process begins. Six of the seven participants (85.71%) discussed joining the affiliated advocacy group when they began searching for support during this challenging time.

“Like most people actually involved in this I had a family member who had just started serving some time for a conviction. And I had not been involved prior to him serving time but at that point I went looking for support, and found that, just how bad things were.” (Participant No. 1)

It was during their search for support that five of the seven participants (71.43%) realized that the legislation attached to the registry was propelling the collateral consequences experienced by registrants, thus sparking the fight for change.

“I said once, you know I realized what actually is happening. I just I was so appalled I could not sit on the sidelines.” (Participant No. 3)

National Affiliations

Next we asked participants how they got involved with NARSOL or the state-level NARSOL-affiliated group. Building on the original themes of having a registered loved one and seeking support, most participants stated that they became involved nationally out of need.

“You know I got, you know, involved one on one and I joined NARSOL. There was a need. There was nobody in [state redacted] doing, associated with NARSOL at all, so I came on board as a NARSOL contact for [state redacted]. So we have contacts and advocates in different states even if they don't have a group, we try to have a contact. So that's where, that's where I was, I started out just took over as the contact for [state redacted], which was basically my first involvement with NARSOL directly.” (Participant No. 6)

Despite being connected to the national affiliate, participants recognize that daily operations may need to differ based on location. However, collaboration and interactions between the state-level groups and NARSOL is essential.

“But anyway, so you know, we kind of all do our own thing. And so that's how we do we try to affiliate, or coordinate and do things with NARSOL, sometimes that doesn't work with just it doesn't work out, let's say that okay. They want to be their own little entity. So that's okay but we like to collaborate. We have a lot of organizations that we're collaborating with.” (Participant No. 7)

Advocacy Experiences

Participants were then asked to describe their experiences advocating at the local, state, and national level. Advocacy efforts of the participants varied, but each worked in some capacity with NARSOL in addition to their regional efforts. Participants reported using different approaches based on the geographical focus of the advocacy work. When the advocacy work is being done at more of a local level, participants describe working to grow contacts (i.e. treatment providers, community corrections officers, employers) and identify needs within specific geographic and logistical areas. Membership recruitment was also a large focus at the local level so that even more registrants could find support within the group itself. Recruitment efforts also allow for the development and expansion of support group meetings in different locations throughout the state. Ultimately, these efforts are about the individual members of the organization and providing registered citizens and their families with what they need when the registrant returns home to the community. Four of the seven participants (57.1%) specifically mention working with the individual to help empower those who need help and who are feeling the stigma of the registry.

“But this particular group that you're talking about is primarily a support group. But it's like NARSOL’S fearless groups. It empowers people. So first, that the idea and my idea with it is that people are isolated, feel shunned from society, feel hopeless, feel depressed. Nobody understands, everybody hates me, even the family members don't want to talk about it. They feel somewhat shame, embarrassed, whatever. So it's primarily support, and I feel like when you get people together, and they can help each other. It's peer lead, it's not professional. Then people will get more hopeful, more encouraged, and the idea what the I mean, for all reasons support is good. But some people will go get the support they need. They'll feel better about themselves, and they feel like they don't need the support anymore, and they'll leave. Other people I'm hoping that they'll become mentors to new people to show them how, you know, I got through it. You will, too, you know. I got through parole or I've got a job, and whatever and then the other another group, and maybe some overlap, is the ones that after they feel more empowered, then they will get angry and want to change the system, and then they'll become advocates and we're finding more and more people do go on to become advocates. So our advocacy is a committee of our support group for those that want to do advocacy.” (Participant No. 4)

At the local level efforts to enact change through education and empirical studies were shared with state representatives. Groups often work to set up face-to-face meetings with local representatives, especially when the legislature is not in session and lawmakers are back home with their constituents. This is done to proactively combat upcoming policy changes while ensuring the lawmaker had the time and attention to devote to the meeting without the chaos of a regular legislative session.

“On the local level we've met with our representatives at coffee shops. You know a group of us that want to will go, and we'll prepare and educate them on an issue. There may or may not be a bill but usually there is some. Something that we're promoting right now, we have to go talk to local people, and maybe local people to try to get a sponsor.” (Participant No. 4)

The focus on empirical research during these meetings was strong. Six of the seven (85.7%) participants discussed the importance of educating lawmakers and the public with empirical data. Objectively, the use of empirical data to craft criminal policies would help to create a more rehabilitative atmosphere where individuals could experience more success with their reentry efforts.

“What we do at [Group Name Redacted] and I believe it's on our website we should probably visit that. It'll give you a lot of insight as to who we are. We are an organization formed by family members, registered folks, community members and professionals who want to see change. We focus on empirically driven information. I believe all policies should be based on what the empirical evidence tells us. And unfortunately, every single thing about this population is dealt with contrary to what research is telling us. So at [Group Name Redacted] our mission statement really is to educate the public the media and legislature regarding back about those required to register for previous sexual offending.” (Participant No. 3)

Five of the seven participants (71.4%) shared their experiences advocating at a state level. During their state legislative sessions, participants described their time spent at the capitol educating lawmakers on the effects of their support. However, participants explained that often it does not matter whether the lawmakers actually believe the realities surrounding the registry system. Participants described lawmakers admitting that they support empirically-based, less-restrictive policies, but stating they were unable to do anything about it without committing political suicide. This finding shares with previous work in which lawmakers expressed similar sentiments (Meloy et al., 2013).

“Well advocating at the local and state and national is, it's quite a test to get your arms around, you know, because the problem is that legislators will tell you when it's not being recorded or on the sideline, you know, we know the registry doesn't work, but if it makes them feel safe. And it's like what! You know? And we were told, I was told by one guy when we were setting up a display in [State Redacted] for a lobby day, and he came down and he said, I agree with you guys, but you got to convince those other guys upstairs. So, anyway, and if they vote. I’ve seen it myself. If they vote for something that's reasonable that will take some of the pressure off of registrants at some point, they'll lose their seat. I saw it, I saw two legislators lose their seat over that. So you know?” (Participant No. 7)

Approaching Lawmakers

In order to better understand how the participant interacted with lawmakers, participants were given two hypothetical situations and asked to describe how they would approach the legislator. The first scenario involved a law that the advocacy group disagreed with and wanted the lawmaker to oppose. The second scenario involved a law that the advocacy group supported and wanted the lawmaker to support.

The opponent. When asked about approaching a legislator supporting a bill the advocacy group disagreed with, four of the seven participants (57.1%) once again noted that providing empirical evidence during their interactions with lawmakers was a method they used for educating the lawmaker. This was a recurrent theme that came up many times through the interview process for the majority of the participants. Participants made a strong stance that they were the only ones relying on real data whereas lawmakers were not.

“Not in all the years of doing this I have not had one legislator actually provide me the data, or provide me any kind of research to support what they were doing. So I simply ask the question, if this is so focused on public safety, where is the where is the summary and the analysis from their staff that shows the direct impact to public safety? They don't have that either.” (Participant No. 3)

Other tactics included preparation and research to ensure that the brief time spent with the legislator or staffer is meaningful. One participant noted that they have found it useful to establish common ground with the lawmaker, especially since the two individuals disagree on a bill. Participants noted that while it is possible to cold-call a lawmaker to discuss a proposed bill, it was often more helpful to have a pre-existing relationship with them.

“One of the biggest things is trying to build relationships in advance, so that you already have a relationship with people. But yeah, if it was just a cold interaction and you know, I never talked to you before, you know it would be really about just explaining who we are, what we're trying to do and trying to find common ground. Trying to get that person to tell me some of the things that they support on a specific bill, but not necessarily you know the language of the bill specifically but what's the back story? Why, you know why'd you introduce this bill why did you sign on to this bill? What problem were you trying to solve for?” (Participant No. 6)

Sometimes the smallest gestures go a long way with lawmakers. For example, one participant reports that she puts legislator birthdays on her calendar so she would remember to send a birthday card. She also recalls sending small gifts to staffers and aids so that they feel recognized during her efforts to schedule meetings. These gestures show a willingness to reach across the aisle and work with the opposition in an attempt to gain a new ally.

“Yeah, always when I developed a relationship with legislators, I always send them a happy birthday. I know when their birthdays are, it’s published. So I put them on my calendar. I send them a happy birthday …Doing little things like on Valentine's day if I was up there, I always had like, get a little things of kisses, or little chocolate hearts or whatever, and I’d leave them just you know little things, you know, thanks from [Advocacy Group Redacted]. Not necessarily to the legislator, but to the LA (aid).” (Participant No. 3)

The ally. When the hypothetical was changed to evaluate a scenario in which the participant supported a particular bill, the answers varied but overall, participants stressed the importance of expressing gratitude in some way for the lawmakers’ support. Alongside the gratitude is a willingness to be helpful in a variety of ways.

“Well, I would thank them for supporting it. I would ask them what I could do to help get this legislation passed. If there's somebody else you know that they want me to talk to her some, you know? Somehow, we could publicize it or something. So yeah, that what I would mainly do would ask them how I could help get this bill passed.” (Participant No. 4)

Sometimes the help that they can provide is by knowing when to remain silent.

“I would privately come to you and say it's a great bill, and we, you know we think it's wonderful, and you know we want to support it. Would you like us to publicly support it, or just sit back? … If it's going to benefit people on the registry it's usually better be quiet or somebody will say, Oh, you mean a support. It's going to improve lives for those people? well we better fix that. And then the next thing you know they've done a carve out so right, oftentimes the support is private. (Participant No. 1)

The best and the worst. Finally, to conclude this section of the interview participants were asked to describe their best interactions with lawmakers in the past. Above all, participants reported that time was an important factor; when legislators actually took the time to hear what the advocate was saying, it allowed for a naturally occurring relationship to develop. Five of the seven participants (71.4%) reported that interactions which allowed for relationships to build were their best interactions.

“Over time I developed a decent, if brief relationship with him. I was able to speak to him on several other occasions, and as the chair, as you know, you know. God bless him! He killed an awful lot of bills, and you know, there was at least, you know. At one point I was waiting in his office for a chance to talk, and he was like I was allowed to go in and sit, you know, watched him wheeling and dealing with people going back and forth, and I just sat quietly waiting and when I had my little moment. At one point I said, I just want you to know that you were the first legislator I ever talked to, and you know you gave me the courage to keep on it.” (Participant No. 1)

Participants were then asked about the worst experience they have had with a legislator. Six of the seven participants (85.7%) shared stories which included being ignored, dismissed, and even walked out on by the lawmakers themselves. Some participants noted that lawmakers purposefully positioned themselves to be intimidating when meeting with the advocates.

“I was there with a couple other people, and we had made an appointment, and we're meeting with her another woman, and she sat at her desk, which was kind of raised behind this big desk that was raised, and we were in these chairs. It seemed like she was exerting her power just in the way the room was arranged, and she listened, but there, I don't remember much interaction. So the worst thing is like when they they're not really listening, or they're playing with their smartphone or something and thinking about other things, and you know that that's not making a difference. But I just remember just feeling intimidated and just the way she had set up the meeting. (Participant No. 4)

Guidance and Training

In addition to meeting with lawmakers to discuss new legislation, advocacy groups often encourage their membership to testify in open committee forums when there is opportunity to do so. At these hearings, registrants and their family members can share their stories and discuss the realities of registration from their perspective. For many, this may be the first time in which they would testify, so the advocacy groups help the members with testimony preparations. Nearly all of the participants (85.7%), recommend that everyone come prepared with a statement and that registered persons do not speak about their offenses specifically, but instead to focus on the bill at hand.

“We have a number of people some of them still on supervision that have shown up from time to time to testify. And from experience as previously mentioned, one of the things that you know, we've learned is that we, especially if we go as a group, we decide, you know, who might tackle which little bit and check our testimonies ahead of. But the other thing that I strongly suggest to anybody who's on the registry, or would have been on the registry, you know, has a conviction, whatever it is. Don't let them suck you in to telling them what your offense is. You've only got a few minutes, and now this is after you've had your you know you've done your talk, and if they start asking you questions. You say that the thing to do is you have your comeback ready. You simply say with all due respects Sir or Madam, I’m here to talk about House Bill 710, and pull out an extra point. But just don’t give them that because the only reason they're doing it is to try to pull out a nick factor, and there is nothing you can say that is going to help. So you know don't let them do it, so that's my one advice and just be ready for it.” (Participant No. 1)

In keeping with the empirical data theme, participants also recommend avoiding the emotional responses often connected to these laws from both the lawmakers and the advocates themselves.

“The point that I want to make, and I think it’s very important. Is that anybody that's advocating, you know, sometimes you get emotional. People, it’s human nature, one tends to exaggerate. You must deal in fact. Don’t come up with stories or anything, and stretch the truth, because it will always come back and bite you. You need to be exemplary. You know, know your information, know who you're speaking to, figure out who you’re going to see.” (Participant No. 3)

Participants were asked if their advice for testimony preparations would differ if the individual was a family member rather than a registrant. Participants stated that preparation strategies were similar in nature, but agreed that the family members have more perceived credibility as a witness than the registrants themselves. Five of the seven participants (71.4%) specifically addressed the strength of the family members’ testimonies as they are often viewed more sympathetically than the registrants themselves.

“I think non-registrants – family members have a, you know, more, not more influence, but more reliability or clout. You know, the closer you get to a register the more someone can say, Oh, it's just a you know a vested interest only thing, not you're in it because it's civil rights, or you're in it because it's you know it’s the right thing and the wrong thing. You know? So that's a challenge of being a registrant or a family, a direct family member. People can easily dismiss you because oh, you just It's just because you personally are suffering, you know.” (Participant No. 6)

When asked about advice given to family members of registrants testifying at a bill hearing, three participants (42.86%) further discussed that there is a preference for the family members to testify over the registrants themselves as they can shed light on the far reaching effects of the registry; that it does not just impact those on the registry but that family members experience collateral consequences of registration as well as is supported by previous research (Bailey & Klein, 2018).

“You probably have to worry a little bit less about sour faces, if you mentioned, you know, a spouse. At least in my experience, when there have been spouses, parents and so on, there's a little more sympathy. And oftentimes again kind of a surprise, because there's so many stereotypes’ people are generally a little surprised to find out that there's, oh, they've got a family.” (Participant No. 1)

Despite their efforts to help coach and train those who want to testify, six of the seven participants (85.71%) discuss having no formal, mandatory training for their members. These advocates discussed attending optional trainings themselves, such as workshops or online trainings, but stated that there was limited structure for training the entirety of the group’s membership. Participants also reported attending conferences hosted by affiliated reform groups as a resource for advocacy trainings and workshops. While the participants did not elaborate much on the types of workshops they attended, it is assumed that these individuals work to pass on the information they learned in the trainings to their memberships. However, many of the participants (5 of 7, 71.4%) report feeling untrained in their approach strategies for addressing lawmakers and stated their most notable training was obtained through trial and error in the field.

“A lot of it is kind of seat of pants in terms of the you know, just kind of learning as we went.” (Participant No. 1)

Legislative Session

To end the interview, participants were asked about the time commitment spent on advocacy reform during legislative sessions. Most of the participants have full time careers and serve their organizations on a part-time, volunteer basis. The amount of time varied from as few as fifteen hours per week to seventy hours per week. This was an all-encompassing estimate which includes preparation work, strategizing with other advocates and members, crafting testimonies, and interacting with lawmakers. This work could be remote or conducted in their state capitals and legislative offices. When legislative sessions end, some of the advocates report a significant dip in the amount of time working on reform efforts. For others, there is no impact at all; they are working at the same pace and speed as they are during a legislative session.

As part of their preparation efforts, six participants (85.7%) reported relying on technology to notify them of new or changed bills and policies. Legislative websites allow for the search of policies that affect registrants, where key search terms can be used as a tool of convenience.

“And the way the [State Redacted] legislature is set up, we have sunshine laws in [State Redacted]. We go to senate.gov or [State Website Redacted], where you go in there and search for bills. You can look at all the bills, you can register so that any bill that you're tracking, you get a pop up when it’s scheduled. Any amendment, anything. So we utilize all of the tools available to us that are provided free through the legislative site, and we include that. We are very diligent about it. We meet once a week, unless there is something that has to happen. We monitored the bill. We have campaign going where we are calling and emailing all of the legislatures on the committee, saying here's the bills, and then we focus on the rest of the legislatures. If they’re not on a specific committee that's going to hear the bill, we want to make sure that everybody in the legislature, is touched by, you know constituents, and others in [State Redacted] that are and telling them why these bills are no good.” (Participant No. 3)

Based on the legislative schedule, advocates can then make decisions about when they will go to their capitol in person. The participants that do spend time at the capitol during the legislative session reported their efforts to make a few visits to legislators and staffers and discuss their affiliation and explain their position on a policy of concern.

“There were a few occasions, those first couple of years when we might make a special trip on a non-hearing day to talk, you know, and actually schedule, you know, visits with a legislator for one thing or another, but for the most part we would show up on a hearing day. A few of us would show up super early and get people signed up, and then, if there were additional people they'd show up a little later during the day, and by 8 o'clock in the morning on those days we would you know at least a couple or 3 of us would be there and ready to start kind of going door to door, or if there were appointments we'd work that in project, and we would you know catch people based on whatever bill it was they'd sponsored, or that they might be voting on or whatever we were talking to and we would spend most of the morning talking.” (Participant No. 1)

It is clear that these advocates must be diligent in paying attention to what lawmakers are doing both during and between their legislative sessions. In order to be an advocate for sexual offense reform, participants must be prepared and well informed so they can go toe-to-toe with the lawmakers creating and voting on the policies. The time estimates provided show that for many, their advocacy efforts are time-consuming, and the participant can face obstacles at every step. However, it is through their fight that other advocates can learn best practices through the efforts of those currently fighting for reform.

Discussion

The results of this study suggest that sex offense reform advocates are facing challenges in their efforts to change registry policies and create a less restrictive environment for registrants. The development of sex offender reform advocacy relies on the family members who identify areas of need in their own experience, and extend help to local, state, and national groups with similar needs. No matter the state, participants expressed frustrations and difficulties in their fight for reform. Specifically, advocates struggle to have their points heard and must work to overcome the stigmatization associated with fighting for registered persons. Several participants reported a general disgust or dismissal from lawmakers once they realized that the participants were advocating on behalf of registrants. Additionally, lawmakers were resistant to hearing accurate statistics and empirical evidence regarding registrant recidivism and the collateral consequences of life on the registry. While they were more sympathetic to listening to the family member of a registrant, lawmakers still stayed firm in their votes for specific bills because they could not appear to be sympathetic to the registrants. This is a notion repeated in prior research (Meloy et al., 2013) in which lawmakers are quoted as being unable to vote no for any piece of sex offense legislation with a child’s name attached to it.

One commonality between participants rests in the cultivation of relationships between advocates and the lawmakers who do seem sympathetic to reform. Advocates must learn which relationships they can invest in and which individuals will not change their minds no matter the evidence. Putting time and effort into the relationship and knowing when to expend human capital (Comartin, 2015) is imperative for these individuals to make the most of their limited interactions with lawmakers during a legislative session. Over time, these advocates learn who is their ally and what strategies to use to convince that person to vote a certain way. Working together across state and national boundaries, advocacy groups can provide support and additional tools for an individual advocate to advance their advocacy efforts.

Based on these findings, it could be implied that participants sometimes believe their fight to be a fruitless effort. However we argue that many other advocacy groups have felt similarly during their tenure fighting for reform in other areas. From a personal standpoint, the registrants and family members are fighting to make their lives better in the long term. However, from a policy standpoint the fight also rests in making the system more equitable for all returning citizens, no matter their offense. There are lessons to be learned from other advocacy groups in terms of training, legislative outreach and more. While the target group might differ, the fight and the tools needed are generalizable to an extend across groups. Adapting the skillsets used by other legal reform groups would be useful to those fighting for registry reform as well.

Limitations

Advocacy work of any kind is highly dependent on a network of individuals who can help support and fight for the cause together. Those who work toward sex offense reform coexist within a complex network of state and national reform groups, however it seems as though there are still strongly concentrated efforts to work toward change at the individual state level. While this approach makes sense given the complex differences that can exist between registries, communication and outreach between groups is still a vital piece of the formula.

Our sample size impacts the generalizability of our study. This study examined the interviews of only seven state-level sex offense reform advocates. Although this is a small sample, it represents a 33.3% response rate which is acceptable for qualitative research. However, it is questionable whether the findings reported here could be generalized to any other type of criminal justice advocacy reform group, further limiting our generalizability. In the criminal justice world, other advocacy groups fight to make changes on behalf of the victims, their families, or other injured parties. As NARSOL affiliated advocates, participants in this study are fighting for reform on behalf of the offender and often on behalf of individuals who have committed sometimes very serious offenses. Although there are recognized stigmas and collateral consequences associated with life on the registry (Ackerman et al., 2013; Burchfield, 2012; Farkas & Miller, 2007; Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson et al., 2007; Lasher & McGrath, 2012; Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury, 2005; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006), those same experiences can apply to those who fight for their registrant loved ones and family members (Bailey & Klein, 2018). It is assumed that this stigma would also apply to those who formally advocate and fight for the rights of registrants, as can be seen from responses of the participants. Legislators may be more receptive to their testimonies if they were advocating for other offender type populations or if they were fighting for a more restrictive environment for registered citizens. Due to that stigmatization due to association with registrants, it would be difficult to even apply these findings to any other kind of legislative reform advocacy group. Drug offenders, for example, do not face the same backlash that they did decades ago due, in part, to many legalization efforts of state governments.

The use of a semi-structured instrument also impacted our study. Using a more structured interview instrument kept the researchers and participants on track to address the pertinent research questions, but future studies may benefit from a more informal approach which would allow participants to discuss things that are the most salient to them and their advocacy groups, allowing the researchers to use inductive means to explore their responses through a thematic content analysis. Future research may also benefit from a quantitative survey to better compare advocacy efforts on a larger scale.

Implications

Based on the responses from the participants in this study, it is crucial that advocates continue to play to their strengths and use their strongest members to their advantage. Family members of registrants seem to be more accepted by lawmakers during testimonies and individual meetings. While registrants themselves should always continue to fight for reform, the arguments made by family members and loved ones seem to hold more weight with legislators and promoting more family member testimonies may be crucial to wide-spread sexual offense policy reform. The innate desire to fight for reform to better the lives of their loved ones, makes family members the perfect people to continue the fight. As discussed by Comartin (2015), family members and registrants are part of an “identity-driven movement” in which member will work to persevere in their cause despite the resources available to them because their inner drive is so strong.

Despite the best efforts of family members and registrants, there is a certain level of bias included in their arguments and testimonies. As they are fighting for their own benefit, some might reject their arguments due to the self-interest included in the fight. Including allies and non-biased professionals strengthens the arguments of the advocacy group. For instance, there are state level organizations who have attorneys and treatment providers working on their behalf (pro-bono at times) during legislative sessions to testify in opposition against specific bills. Law students could also serve as a valuable, inexpensive legal resource for organizations as many desire, or even need, direct experience in policy change. Furthermore, academic researchers can provide empirical data to the advocacy groups while using their members as participants, similar to what this study entails. Direct reporting from independent experts in the field voices lend credibility to the cause without adding an increased financial burden to the organization in question. Anecdotally, it appears as though many organizations use this model to an extent but leadership should not be afraid to reach out to these professions as many times these individuals would be willing to help in solidarity.

The additional advantage of having these allies associated with the organization is the possibility to draft changes to potential legislation or to provide an alternative to current policies. Although legislators are very prone to make substantive changes to bills before they are passed into law, it would be beneficial to advocates to have suggestions ready for lawmakers to fight for. Providing empirical research to lawmakers to dispel some of the misconceptions regarding registrants is a necessary aspect of advocacy work, but if organizations could show that this means for policy change they would have a stronger argument for change (Comartin, 2015).

Finally, as most of the interviews suggested that the body of their organizations are comprised of volunteer advocates it is understandable that there are limited funds available for trainings. Participants suggest that they are trained either by other members or from the parent organization, NARSOL. From the participants’ responses, it appears as though trainings are, perhaps, less structured and informal in nature compared to other advocacy groups with strong funding levels. Many of the groups connected to NARSOL are non-profit organizations, which limits the financial power of the group in comparison to bigger, oppositional organizations dedicated to strengthening registry policies. As a way to limit costs, it might be beneficial for those trainings to be completed virtually, or could be recorded for future use. Keeping in mind that some of the membership might have Internet restrictions, these recordings could be used in group settings like support meetings or at conferences. Additionally, one low cost training mechanism might be the creation of a training manual (if one does not exist for a specific organization) or in the adaptation of a self-published manual developed by an independent advocate (Grund, 2022). From the organizations’ websites, it is clear that some groups already use a manual such as Grund’s but others have not adapted such a guide. These manuscripts could be of profound help for advocates as they are published by those who have already had experience in this area, advocating themselves.

Registry reform is an on-going fight for many individuals who are highly invested in change from the ground up. It is clear that these individuals are committed to fair reform regarding a group of policies that are correlated with significant consequences for those living on these lists. Advocates should continue to use as many resources to their advantage as they can find, including one another and those allies who are committed to their cause as well.

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Contributors

Jennifer L. Wooldridge, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Tyler. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2014.  Dr. Wooldridge’s research interests include sex offender registration, collateral consequences of sex offender laws, the Jerry Sandusky scandal, criminological theory testing, and policy evaluation.  She has published in Justice Policy Journal, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology, and Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law and Society, among other journals.

Danielle J. S. Bailey, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Director for the Center of Teaching and Learning Excellence at the University of Texas at Tyler. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2015.  Dr. Bailey’s research interests include the impact of sex offender policy on convicted sex offenders and their family members, social support and criminal activity, and qualitative methodologies.  She has published in Criminal Justice Policy Review, Criminal Justice Review, American Journal of Criminal Justice, and Criminal Justice Studies, among other journals.

Stephanie Taulli, B.S. graduated from the University of Texas at Tyler in 2023. Ms. Taulli served as an undergraduate research assistant on the current project and is pursuing a career in child protective services.

IRB Approval

This project was approved by the University of Texas at Tyler Institutional Review Board IRB FY2021-205.

Declarations

Funding: There was no funding for this project.

Conflicts of interest/Competing interests: There are no conflicts of interest or competing interests between the authors and this journal.

The manuscript submitted is original, has not been published before in any language, and is not currently under review with any other journals.

Availability of data and material: The data is held by the authors and is not currently stored in a public depository.

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