This is the online version of the article. To access a print version with page numbers for citation and reference purposes, select "Download" to the right and then choose "Formatted PDF."
Many individuals convicted of a sexual offense (ICSOs) experience various collateral consequences due to registration requirements, including income loss, unemployment, harassment, social isolation, homelessness, and more. Finding employment post-conviction is a difficult endeavor for many reentering citizens with criminal records, but for ICSOs, the difficulty increases due to their label as sex offenders. When these individuals are unsuccessful in obtaining steady, living-wage employment, it can result in mental health impacts such as depression, hopelessness, and other reactions. This paper seeks to analyze participants’ emotional and mental health reactions to their direct experiences with employment struggles due to registration. What feelings are participants experiencing as a result of these struggles? Using qualitative responses from over 550 ICSOs, this paper uses thematic content analysis to examine perceptions of their success within the system, their mental health reactions to this success, and ways in which the participants seek to mitigate the damage caused by their self-perceived failures in finding employment. The qualitative findings and policy implications are discussed.
Keywords: sex offender, sex offender registry, reentry, mental health impacts, employment, qualitative research
Life under sex offender registration and community notification (SORN) laws can be difficult for those who are required to register. It has long been found that individuals convicted of a sexual offense (ICSOs) face a multitude of challenges post-conviction due to the public nature of SORN requirements, including housing difficulties (Levenson et al., 2007; Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury, 2005) job difficulties (Lasher & McGrath, 2012; Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury, 2005), loss of social support (Bailey & Klein, 2018), harassment (Ackerman et al., 2013; Levenson et al., 2007; Tewksbury, 2005), and physical and social isolation (Bailey & Klein, 2018; Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson et al., 2007; Lasher & McGrath, 2012; Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury, 2005). Although it was meant to be a public safety mechanism to supervise ICSOs post-conviction, SORN has created a challenging atmosphere for ICSOs to achieve their reentry goals. In particular, finding and maintaining suitable employment is often a complicated process for these individuals and their family members.
In particular, ICSOs must battle a felony/criminal record and contend with being a registered person who can be publicly identified as such. While there are a few limited exceptions where less than 10% of ICSOs are publicly required to register (Oregon and Minnesota), the majority of states require nearly all (over 90% in most cases) of their ICSOs to be listed on their state’s registry website (Harris et al., 2014). The public nature of the registry and the lengthy registration requirements make it difficult for many ICSOs to rebuild their lives post-conviction. Although ICSOs’ experiences with collateral consequences are well documented by prior research, an area less examined is the impact of these requirements on the registrants’ mental health. Many returning citizens face various mental health issues post-conviction regardless of their offense type (Gonzalez & Connell, 2014; Visher & Mallik-Kane, 2007). This article seeks to explore how much of these existing mental health struggles are then exasperated by the public nature of the sex offender registry. In this article, we use qualitative data from an online survey to explore mental health impacts related to employment struggles as a registered citizen.
Individuals convicted of sexual offenses (ICSOs) are subject to many restrictions and supervision checks beyond what other reentering citizens are subjected to. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 established the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which expanded nationwide registration systems by establishing a minimum set of standards for sex offender registration and notification policies. Although designed to reduce sexual recidivism by increasing awareness and promoting informal supervision of ICSOs by community members (Mancini, 2014), researchers consistently find little to no impact of SORNA policies on recidivism rates (Freeman & Sandler, 2010; Tewksbury & Jennings, 2010; Tewksbury et al., 2012). Instead, SORNA has created a restrictive environment in which reentry success is challenging to achieve for ICSOs resulting in several collateral consequences.
Many of these collateral consequences are negatively correlated with recidivism rates, suggesting that not only are SORNA policies ineffective at reducing recidivism, but they increase recidivism risks through the collateral consequences experienced by those subjected to registration and notification. The registry has been commonly associated with experiences with job loss and unemployment, financial issues, housing insecurity, social support loss, harassment and isolation, and suffering of household members and other loved ones, among other concerns (Ackerman et al., 2013; Bailey & Klein, 2018; Burchfield, 2012; Farkas & Miller, 2007; Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson et al., 2007; Lasher & McGrath, 2012; Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury, 2005; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006). More specifically, Levenson and Cotter found that over half of registrants experienced some financial instability due to registration requirements and residency restrictions in their state (2005). Additionally, Levenson, D’Amora, and Hern found that 21% of ICSOs reported being terminated due to their employer finding out about their registered status (2007). Furthermore, individuals with criminal records experience unemployment almost five times more often than those individuals who do not have a criminal record (Couloute & Kopf, 2018). While these findings describe the struggles many ICSOs face, their experiences are still rooted in the main struggles that all reentering citizens face.
Just as life on the registry impacts the financial and physical health of ICSOs, there is concern regarding the mental health impact of SORNA policies on ICSOs and their families. Regardless of conviction type, individuals reentering society from prison and/or jail face mental health challenges. Gonzalez and Connell (2014) found that more than 1/4th of inmates from state and federal correctional facilities were diagnosed with a mental health condition at one point in their life, and approximately 20% were taking prescription medication(s) for those conditions at the time of admission to prison. Visher and Mallik-Kane (2007) found that most individuals exiting prison had been diagnosed with a chronic physical or mental health condition, with depression being one of the most common conditions reported. Researchers also report that prisoners frequently have multiple health conditions co-occurring (Davis & Pacchiana, 2003) and that high rates of mental health conditions among prisoner populations can be attributed, in part, to increased rates of substance use and chronic socioeconomic disadvantage compared to the general community (National Commission on Correctional Health Care, 2002). Travis (2005) also argues that when reentering citizens do have mental health problems, the reentry process becomes significantly more complex than for those individuals who do not have a mental health diagnosis. The experience of surviving prison and then going through the community reentry process adds additional strain to returning citizens, further increasing the likelihood of mental health concerns in this population.
Given the already high prevalence of mental health concerns for incarcerated persons regardless of conviction type, the additional stigmatization and isolation that ICSOs face due to SORNA legislation create a perfect storm to increase mental health risk. Researchers examining broader populations note the importance of positive family support in aiding the mental health of returning citizens (Wallace et al., 2016), but social support is often lacking for ICSO populations upon release. Although the existing data support high rates of mental health concerns among ICSO populations, previous research suggests that ICSOs who have personally experienced a consequence of SORNA legislation experience more mental health distress than ICSOs who do not report experiencing these consequences themselves (Jeglic et al., 2012). Not surprisingly, research focused on mental health concerns in ICSOs has shown high rates of suicide risk (Jeglic et al., 2012; Katsman & Jeglic, 2019), hopelessness (Ackerman et al., 2013; Jeglic et al., 2012; Levenson et al., 2007), depression (Jeglic et al., 2012; Levenson et al., 2007), and anxiety/stress (Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury 2013) among ICSOs living in the community. Jeglic, Mercado, and Levenson (2012) found that as many as 43% of ICSOs sampled experienced suicidal ideations, and one-fifth scored “severe” on the Beck Depression Inventory-II.
The high prevalence of mental health concerns, particularly depression, hopelessness, and suicidal intent, prompted Harris and Levenson (2021) to propose a new mental health diagnosis, Post-Conviction Traumatic Stress. Harris and Levenson (2021) studied interview data from seventy ICSOs, noting that SORNA laws and restrictions created an environment in which ICSOs struggled to meet their basic human needs, causing symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). ICSOs reported engaging in fear and isolation-based coping strategies due to their symptoms, paranoia, hyper-vigilance, and proactive isolation (Harris and Levenson, 2021). Is it any wonder that this type of environment escalates the mental health disorder prevalence in ICSO populations?
As previously discussed, one of the most challenging aspects of reentry for ICSOs is finding and maintaining employment post-conviction. Not only do ICSOs have to contend with a criminal/felony record, but in most cases, they are publicly registered as a sex offender. Employers, co-workers, neighbors, and more have used this public status against ICSOs to fire or harass them to the point of quitting. Employment is a basic right with significant importance placed on it while ICSOs are under state supervision. However, that importance extends to all aspects of the reentry process (Peterscilia, 2003). Struggles with unemployment knock down the individual and their confidence levels, suggesting that they are not a safe hire due to the sex offender label. As discussed by Harris and Levenson, “simply put, when basic human needs are absent or lacking, the amygdala is activated due to a sense of physical or emotional danger. Traumatic stress reactions occur when someone is exposed to a perceived threat, feels helpless or vulnerable, and capacity for coping is overwhelmed (van der Kolk, 2006)” (2021: 768). This struggle is difficult for anyone experiencing challenges with employment, but those with a felony record unemployment can “foster disempowerment, social isolation, hopelessness, and shame” among ICSO populations (Harris & Levenson, 2021: 768). The concern then rests on whether these individuals will draw further into themselves and isolate even more due to their inability to achieve this reentry staple.
These psychological setbacks impact the registrant, their family members, and other loved ones experiencing the registry process. SORNA creates an environment in which failure often feels inevitable, and their mental health can be continuously impacted with little or nearly no victories at all. Feelings of failure can result from not being able to achieve their employment goals and registration often lasting the rest of their lives, many registrants will not be able to get out from underneath this cycle. We then ask whether these experiences result in maladaptive coping mechanisms or negative thoughts due to their self-perceived failure. The current study examines the emotional and mental health reactions to direct experiences with employment struggles due to registration. We seek to explore what feelings participants are experiencing due to these struggles with employment and registration in their lives.
The current study evaluates participants' qualitative responses to understand better ICSOs’ experiences with employment struggles and their feelings or reactions to those struggles. As part of the post-conviction reentry process, many returning citizens face hurdles to successful employment due, in part, to their felony records (Petersilia, 2003). However, this study examines how the additional stigmatization of being a registered person impacts participants’ mental health, desire and ability to work, and fear of facing other hardships due to their status. Additionally, this study will examine those issues as they relate to the participants’ perceptions of finding success within the registry system.
The data used in this study are derived from a more extensive quantitative survey in which ICSOs were asked about their experiences with job searches, interviews, employment, income loss, harassment from co-workers, and more as a result of their registration requirements. The survey was administered online via Qualtrics and was distributed to the membership of the National Association for Reasonable Sex Offender Legislation (NARSOL) and nine state-level affiliated advocacy groups. Through snowball sampling, participants were also encouraged to send the survey to additional ICSOs they were in contact with. If participants had internet restrictions, the researchers could mail paper surveys to those individuals upon request. The Institutional Review Board approved the study at the University of Texas at Tyler (IRB # Sum2018-08). Within this non-probability sample, 1,002 participants provided informed consent to complete the online survey through Qualtrics. Given the different survey distribution methods, the researchers cannot calculate a response rate for this study.
The broader quantitative survey focused on employment-related issues such as job loss, income loss over time, licensure losses, reliance on government assistance, and more. The survey sought to explore the registrant's experiences before and after conviction and any additional changes that may have resulted up to the present. This was a retrospective survey in which the researchers sought to quantify income losses due to registration. In thinking about their employment history and the struggles associated with employment success, participants were allowed to provide an open-ended response to the following qualitative measure:
“Is there any additional information that you would like to share with us regarding your employment experiences as a registered person, or possible economic hardships you have faced since your sexual conviction?”
A total of 577 participants provided a qualitative response to this measure of the study. Of those 577 participants, 12 provided non-applicable messages such as thanking the researchers for the study, critiques of the survey, or simply stating that “no” they didn’t have anything additional to add. These twelve participants did not provide any response that could be coded for content and therefore were removed from the study, leaving a final sample of 565 participants.
As shown in Table 1, participants most commonly identified as male (n = 542, 95.9%), with a mean age of 51.57. The majority of participants also reported being white (n = 512, 90.6%), non-Hispanic (n = 511, 90.4%), and married (n = 155, 27.4%). Additionally, these participants most commonly report having to register for life (n = 387, 68.5%) and committed either sexual assault against a minor (n = 139, 24.9%) or a child pornography-based offense (n = 148, 26.2%). Regarding education, most participants reported having at least an associate’s degree or higher (n = 303, 53.9%). Concerning employment, only 229 participants (40.5%) reported being able to work full time (n = 229, 40.5%).
Table 1. Participant Demographic Characteristics.
n = 512
n = 18
American Indian or Alaskan Native
n = 7
n = 7
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
n = 2
n = 19
n = 511
n = 39
Mean: 51.57 years old
n = 542
n = 21
n = 2
n = 208
n = 175
n = 113
Upper Middle Class
n = 40
n = 8
n = 128
n = 155
Divorced or Separated
n = 100
n = 8
In a Committed Relationship
n = 65
Did Not Disclose
n = 109
No College Degree
n = 231
Associate’s Degree or Higher
n = 303
Unemployed but looking for work
n = 90
Unemployed by not looking for work
n = 25
Unable to work (disability)
n = 50
n = 74
Employed Part Time
n = 91
Employed Full Time
n = 229
n = 105
n = 50
n = 387
n = 17
Sexual Assault of a Minor
n = 139
n = 95
Sexual Assault of an Adult
n = 29
Prostitution and/or solicitation of a prostitute
n = 3
Possession, manufacture, or distribution of child pornography
n = 148
n = 1
n = 1
n = 138
A content analysis of the responses was conducted to examine potential themes within. Through inductive reasoning, using the bottom-up approach, multiple themes emerged from the qualitative responses (Braun & Clark, 2006; Frith & Gleeson, 2004). Given the breadth of data provided by the participants, a total of thirty-one themes were identified; however, not all of them are included in this article.
Two researchers independently reviewed and coded each response. After the initial analyses, the two coding structures were compared to see where the coding similarities existed. There was strong consensus between the researchers, as less than 10 percent of the entries required a subsequent review. Both researchers elaborated to each other their decision and then reviewed the articles together to validate the interpretation of the text. During the secondary review process, the researchers achieved consensus, which helped maintain the integrity of the content analysis, reduced error among the coders, and resulted in high inter-rater reliability, as Braun & Clark (2006) recommended. Participants’ responses are reported verbatim as they were written on the survey, which may include grammatical errors.
The findings of this study examine the idea that many participants believe they will never be able to succeed in their post-conviction employment efforts fully. Based on the belief that ICSOs are facing a system designed for them to fail, individuals reported the negative effects registration has had on their mental and emotional health, their fear of being identified as a “sex offender,” and any actions taken to mitigate the effects of the registry on employment. As Figure 1 suggests, once the participants feel like they are in a system set up for failure in reentry, registrants exhibit mental health concerns, full-blown depression or suicidal tendencies, feelings of hopelessness, and fear. On the other hand, there was also a discussion about how participants would try to mitigate the economic harm caused by registration. To mitigate those harms, participants report retiring early, giving up on finding work entirely, or settling for low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Figure 1 shows the thematic development of the coded responses and additionally provides the frequency statistics for the participants’ responses. The findings from each thematic code will be discussed individually.
This study examines a subsection of select themes relating to participants’ perceptions that society and the criminal justice system won’t let us succeed in post-conviction employment goals. For this theme, the researchers coded all responses suggesting that society does not want ICSOs to succeed in their reentry efforts because of their crimes. This theme also includes responses indicating that the registry system is unconstitutional, it is a lifetime sentence, that the registry system was set up to see ICSOs fail, or that community members want no interaction with this group.
Sixty-six participants (12.26%) expressed beliefs consistent with the well-documented feelings of stigmatization, isolation, and defeat associated with the registry system (Klein, Tolson, & Collins, 2014; Levenson & D'Amora, 2007; Tewksbury, 2004, 2005; Tolson & Klein, 2015).
I have worked hard to better myself and to be a productive member of society but there is no help and it’s a battle each day. I have to report 4 times a year but only once a year in California where I lived my entire life. I moved her for a better opportunity for stable housing low cost of living and I’m willing to work and provide for myself without assistance but it is too hard to do it with this requirement. I have not been in trouble since I was convicted in 1985. How are we supposed to stay away from prison when we have no opportunity to prove ourselves? This is a horrible way to prevent people from substaing themselves without illegal activities. Someone needs to help better our chances. After 30 years I’m tossed out into a world that hates me and judges me on what I was charged with and not who I am or what I’m trying to do. I’m drownin (Participant No. 244)
Many participants felt they had not been successful in finding steady, suitable work with a livable wage due to their registration status and being publicly identified as sex offenders. One respondent spoke to the pervasive nature of registration and how it has impacted all parts of his life post-conviction.
I was turned away from a brokerage firm because of my felony/registrant status. The leprosy of registration bleeds into all aspects of my life, even tho the action was over 24 years ago and even tho I have been sober of any activity whatever since then...I am still looked at as a contagious —and utterly unredeemable— piece of shit (Participant No. 285)
Other participants mentioned that because of registration, they would never find employment, and without family support, they would not be able to live day-to-day.
I live in a draconian state that willfully seeks to mentally and monetarily hurt all those on the registry. It has been very hard to live and survive here but thankfully my father has been able to help me with a roof over my head and food on the table, It amazes me that our society looks to physically and mentally hurt anyone listed on the registry, and if Florida its become e a hit list of sorts with people seeking us out to hurt us with all of our information spread all over the internet. It is not easy surviving in a state where you can not find employment due to being blacklisted in life due to the registry. (Participant No. 205)
Finally, participants also discussed their frustration in starting over elsewhere and how developed skills do not help individuals find better jobs as they would ordinarily. Additionally, participants reported feeling set up to fail and that community members can use that as justification for more restrictions.
Education and past experience doesn't mean squat once you accept the plea and are placed on the registry. Once you are on the registry your life is basically over and now with the government making the IML (international megans law) you cant even start over somewhere else they are placing pressure on other country's to ban us. So they don't want you to have a life here and they don't want you to have a life anywhere else. They are hoping that all RSO'S break the law so they can say "see i told you they are no good and they will offend again and again" because we are backed up to the wall without any hope. And its only getting worse they are passing more and more restrictive laws here in Florida every day. (Participant No. 402).
Not only did participants feel there was no employment success in sight, but this frustration tied into additional issues regarding registration. As previously discussed, the mental health concerns associated with registration have not been extensively researched, but registration has been linked to higher levels of suicide among juvenile registrants (Letourneau et al., 2018). The first group of sub-themes connects unsuccessful employment attempts to an unsupportive system resulting in general mental health concerns, severe depression and suicidal ideations, and feelings of hopelessness among ISCO populations within the study.
The theme of mental health concerns was an all-encompassing one in which the researchers coded for all responses that mentioned any mental health concern exclusive of suicide and depression. It was important to keep the two themes separate as suicidal ideations and depression, as described by the participants, represented the extreme side of all the negative mental health experiences associated with registration. Therefore, mental health concerns are defined as any adverse mental health resulting from registration, including but not limited to anxiety, significant stress, self-described trauma, decreased self-esteem, and more.
Fourteen participants (2.6%) described negative mental health experiences consistent with the thematic definition. Several participants described being embarrassed about their registration status and having to disclose that to a potential employer.
I experience high degrees of anxiety, embarrassment, and fear when considering employment that I am highly qualified for. Importantly, my family has suffered significantly from my loss of economic viability including access to Education. (Participant No. 147)
Others reported significant dips in self-esteem levels with no reported confidence due to their status. Some were worried about employers finding out, whereas other participants were worried about their family members experiencing hardships.
If not for a family members assistance, I might never have found employment. My self-esteem was at an all time low. I worried about what employers would do or ask which kept me from many potential interviews. When I did go on interviews, it was for minimum wage jobs, far beneath my experience level. (Participant No. 318)
Additionally, it became clear that mental health concerns are not isolated only to employment. Instead, as one participant describes, registration leaves no part of your life untouched. This person describes life while registered as a shameful, stigmatizing experience with high-stress levels permeating all parts of your life.
While your survey covers many aspects of a registrants life, you personally(as an entity) have absolutely no idea how devastating to the emotional and mental state of not only those on the registry but also family members that it is. I don't even know if you can imagine the shame associated with this label and the negative affects it has.… Can you even imagine the stress of looking for a job knowing almost for sure you won't get the job due to your status....what this does to the mental and emotional psyche? (Participant No. 530)
In addition to the above-mentioned mental health concerns, 20 (3.72%) participants reported feelings and experiences with depression, suicide attempts, or suicidal ideations due to their registration status. Within this sub-theme, participants describe the significant depression associated with the daily struggles that ICSOs face with registration.
It's extremely depressing. My life today is dramatically different than it was prior to my arrest in 2012, 6 years ago. I lived very comfortably before my arrest. Those days are now long gone. It is now a struggle just to survive. (Participant No. 83)
Again, tapping into the idea that the registration system does not allow ICSOs to move past their convictions, participants describe how their depression is related to the consistently punitive environment surrounding registration.
Overall, it is so punitive, that I understand why many people in my similar situation battle severe depression as I have over the years. "When does the punishment end?" That's what I have been asking myself ever since I was released from prison, more than 15 years ago. (Participant No. 483)
Additionally, others have reported thoughts of suicide or even suicide attempts. These suicidal thoughts are often linked to an inability to find employment, pay bills, maintain housing, and being able to move on from the label of sex offender.
That many times and when I been close to being homeless. At risk for homelessness is very stressful. There have been times where I wanted to end it all because of the despair anxiety and constant fear of being homeless and not being able to survive and provide for myself. This does not help Society, my family, or my children their father is at anytime at risk of being homeless and losing his job. (Participant No. 300)
Furthermore, 22 participants (4.09%) reported feelings of hopelessness. The researchers coded any responses that discussed attempts to build a life as a registered individual as a ‘waste of time’ or ‘no longer worth it.’ Other responses centered on the notion that ICSOs have ‘nothing left to lose.’
The record and the restrictions along with a fear of negative publicity for hiring registered citizens makes job hunting pretty much a total waste of time and effort. I have been at it since January 2014 and have NOTHING to show for it. (Participant No. 50)
Participants also report that they are social pariahs excluded from their communities, so what do their employment efforts and training matter in the long run? When ICSOs are socially and physically isolated from their communities, they are at higher risk for depression and other mental health disorders (Santini, Koyanagi, Tyrovolas, Mason, & Haro, 2015).
I've lost people who I thought were my family and friends. I'm already dead, it's just a matter of time when I'll be dead completely, and maybe I can finally have peace. There is no longer a point of going on, because I can't get or hold down a job. My doctor suggested that I go to college, since I've got my G.E.D.,but what's the use. It's not like it matters. (Participant No. 312)
For the final theme focusing on negative emotions, 15 participants (2.79%) discussed feelings of fear associated with their registration status, being identified as a registered person, being physically assaulted, how that would impact their employment, and whether their family/friends would be impacted by registration as well.
Since my incarceration, my income has been cut by nearly 50%. Finding housing is virtually impossible and I must spend well more than I can afford, just to keep from being homeless. I was recently denied a promotion at my current job due to my status as a registrant. I live in constant fear of being harassed or of my home/property being vandalized. Finding employment is next to impossible due to background checks. Even though I have a degree, I'm pretty much unable to use it...but the student loan payments still are due every month. Every 30 days, I'm scrambling to find a way to keep a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Zero fun, zero social life, zero anything other than work and survival. My life is horrible due to my need to register/background checks. I understand that I'm not "the victim" here (given my past)...but these days, I feel like I'm getting close to it. (Participant No. 445)
Other participants discussed intense fears about their family’s safety should they be associated with a registered person. While there is a desire to succeed and rebuild their lives post-conviction, participants report their fear of never being able to achieve these reentry goals.
I am scared for my life and my family's safety each and every day. I fear that I or someone I love will get hurt. This is America, land of the free and home of the brave. Registrants are not free and find it difficult to be brave… Job opportunities are limited. I fear losing my current job. I live in fear constantly. I want to move somewhere to start a new life, a better life. I have so much to offer but can't. (Participant No. 124)
Additionally, participants described their fear of being publicly outed as registered persons. These fears were common throughout this theme, as participants considered the potential fallout from being identified as an ICSO.
The mental and emotional toll it trashes wandering if/when they will find out I'm on the registry is just bad as being in prison wandering whether or not people will find out I'm a sex offender, absolutely horrifying and terrifying (Participant No. 478)
These negative emotions associated with the registry system seem pervasive in all aspects of the ICSOs’ lives. As participants discuss, these feelings are associated with struggles with employment, housing, social connections, and more. When all those negative emotions occur simultaneously, ICSOs report taking different pathways to find job security, even if that means not working.
As previously discussed, finding work as a registered person is difficult, as many are denied job opportunities based on their criminal record. While some have found employment stability, 17 participants (3.16%) reported having entirely given up on finding work. The researchers coded any responses focusing on abandoning the job search, no longer applying for work, or no longer wanting to work were coded within this theme. Participants described their anger with the registry system and how it led to them giving up the employment search.
Personally, I haven't looked for a job in over a decade. Fuck trying to work! I rather enjoy staying at home, playing video games and not having to worry about homelessness. I don't have to worry about losing my job. My life has less stress and I can focus on anti-registry activism. I've learned to live off less than $1000 per month. The people don't want us to work. My thoughts are we should ALL collect a government check since they made us unemployable. I personally will NEVER work again. (Participant No. 505)
Others discussed their desire to stay quiet and out of the workforce to protect family members and loved ones who may be the primary income earners for the household. To protect their loved one’s careers, the participants shrink to help.
My family members have been harassed and had difficult time with their jobs and personal friendships. Been harassed by neighbors. I was fired within 3 weeks working on a supermarket, after first job being released, was honest and up front. Was fired because of registry. Second job as a mechanic and was treated like a slave, harassed by management, employees and had to keep job because of probation. After probation I applied to over 60 jobs and never got a single interview, was told many times that they did not want a sex offender, or want a police office to show up checking on any of their employees. I gave up looking and living a life of existence. I live at the mercy of my family. I have no social life, no life at all. (Participant No. 384)
Finally, participants described the difficulties finding employment based on the location of the job site. For example, if the position is too close to a child safety zone, many ICSOs are prohibited from working there due to the nature of their conviction.
Most employers do background checks these days. A simple Google search of my name will pull up news stories of my arrest. Few companies are willing to hire sex offenders. Some of the companies that I have applied to state that explicitly when they ask for your consent to a background check. However, the biggest obstacle to my finding employment is the proximity restrictions. By law, I cannot work within 1,000 feet of a school, church, playground, daycare, or other "places where children gather." I have had two employers willing to hire me knowing that I was a sex offender. I had to leave both of those jobs because they were too close to a church. I have pretty much given up finding a job. (Participant No. 371)
Given the age of some participants, early retirement may be an option for those who are eligible and financially able to do so. Twenty-two participants (4.09%) discussed early retirement, partial retirement, or living on Social Security, pensions, savings, or fixed income exclusively.
After being downsized from my last job I chose to give up my search for employment due to being on the registry. I thought it would be a fruitless endeavor to try to find employment of any kind. I was in a position to opt for early retirement. (Participant No. 17)
Additionally, others feel forced into early retirement even though they cannot afford it. Alternatively, these ICSOs need to find other sources of income to help them survive.
Being retired is not my choice. I am still permitted to work while on Social Security. I am now not able to work because of health reasons. After my release I would have liked to return to work. The jobs I have applied for were part time jobs and I was rejected by all due to my sex offender status. Social Security alone is not enough to support myself. That's why I must have a roommate to share costs. (Participant No. 48)
Finally, other participants have relied on their retirement income to fulfill their needs partially. These individuals continue to seek work where they can find it to supplement their retirement money.
I have been a ‘bargain’ for all my employers since being on the registry. I opted for early retirement (age 62) because I had paid into the system a lot during my better days, and downsized my style of living to work with my new, lower income. I find part-time ‘contractual’ work as an accountant/business manager when and where I can to supplement my income. By being a contractor, I usually get around background checks. (Participant No. 170)
Although participants described their exit from the workforce through early retirement and abandoning the job search, others did not have that luxury. In this final theme, 60 participants (11.15%) described settling for low-wage jobs or working several low-wage jobs to make ends meet. The researchers coded all responses that discussed having to work for lower wages, being forced to settle for jobs they don’t enjoy, or having to work several jobs at a time.
The registry traps me. I am stuck in a housekeeping position, and only got the job b/c they didn't do a background check. I don't even apply for other jobs, b/c these days every ad says must past background check. (Participant No. 491)
Skill sets do not seem to make much of a difference either. Participants frequently report no matter the level of education or training, ICSOs are barred from stable jobs with a living wage due to their registrant status.
I ended up graduating magna cum laude at [University name redacted] after my conviction and sentence. I was on track to have my choice of many jobs before I got myself in trouble. After my sentence I've only had one non-fast food or cold calling job that gave me a chance to do tech support/customer service, and that was still limited to $11/hr. (Participant No. 146)
Finally, even when better opportunities are available to ICSOs, background checks are the biggest hurdle to these better positions. Registered individuals might succeed during the interview process, but the job offer disappears once the background check occurs.
I have had two direct offers for better employment recinded after background checks that listed me on the registration. One offer was for $32.50Hr,which I am more than qualified for. I stay at my current job just because I have had bad experiences looking for jobs that I am qualified for and pay better. (Participant No. 212)
Given these different barriers to achieving employment success, it is no surprise that ICSOs are struggling post-conviction. These struggles can be ongoing for years, given that many ICSOs must register for decades, depending on their conviction (Mancini, 2014). Since employment success is one of the most critical parts of ICSOs’ reentry efforts post-conviction (Harris & Levenson, 2021), there are several policy concerns to consider.
The results of this study suggest that ICSOs are facing significant difficulties in terms of finding economic success and that it is causing emotional and psychological harm to this population of reentering citizens. Although reentry efforts can be difficult for all types of returning persons, ICSOs have the compounded issue of public identification due to registration status. As seen in the qualitative responses above, even when companies hire ICSOs, their security is not guaranteed, as co-workers, human resources personnel, or even bosses can find ICSOs on the registry website. This can lead to the termination of contracts and offers being rescinded. It is not easy to find a job with long-term security as a registered person.
When facing such hurdles, many ICSOs reported feeling as though the system was not designed to let them succeed. In a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, registered persons expressed feeling as though the system was designed for them to fail and then is ready to vilify them when they do not succeed. However, other factors, such as having social and financial support from family members and friends, may also play a role here. When participants reported having that support, they were better able to achieve reentry success in terms of employment. Those that did not have that support were more likely to perceive the system as a stacked deck.
Lack of social support can often be tied to declines in mental health, leading to feelings of isolation, hopelessness, fear, depression, and in some instances, suicide. These issues are significant as some research suggests that over 75% of ICSOs may experience mental illness (Call, 2016). Additionally, leaving mental health conditions untreated has been associated with higher levels of sexual offending (Finlay et al., 2019).
The companion themes to mental health challenges also represent a withdrawal regarding employment desires. For some, being forced out of the workplace or into sometimes menial positions further amplifies their self-perceived second-class citizen status. Some ICSOs do not feel welcome in many businesses for fear of retaliation from co-workers or employers. Others may minimize their presence in the workplace by not seeking promotions or better-paying positions, even if they are qualified. This fear suggests that the mental health challenges related to employment success are not mutually exclusive occurrences from workplace mitigation techniques. Staying in these dead-end positions or choosing to withdraw from the workplace could represent personal self-sabotaging efforts on behalf of the registrant. Once again, this reinforces the notion that the system will not allow them to succeed.
As this data was part of a more extensive study, there are limitations surrounding the sample selection and potential self-selection bias. The participants from this study were all registered persons who were associated with one or more advocacy groups directed toward helping ICSOs navigate registry life. Due to these connections and their self-selection in the study, there is bias in the sample. Furthermore, the participants who provided qualitative responses within the survey likely felt more invested in the study than others. From experience, registrant participants often do not have the opportunity to share their stories, but when given the opportunity can become quite verbose in their responses (Klein, Bailey & Sample, 2018).
There are generalizability issues attributed to using snowball sampling as well. As the qualitative measure was part of a broader quantitative survey, there are limitations regarding the manner of response. Participants may not have wanted to report additional information that could identify them should they elaborate on their responses. Others may have dropped out of the survey after answering all quantitative questions, as the qualitative measure was the last item in the study. The researchers are also limited by which themes they can explore within the analyses as the participants drove the results. Future research would benefit from conducting semi-structured interviews using inductive means, where the researchers could ask about specific struggles associated with employment success.
Reentry success depends on various factors but for most registrants securing employment seems to be a difficult achievement. Based on the results of this study, when registrants struggle to find steady employment with a livable wage, some believe that the system has set them up for failure leading to long-term reentry implications. This perception can lead registrants to experience adverse mental health effects due to their employment struggles. Comparatively, steady employment has been associated with higher levels of self-esteem and confidence (Corde, 2021). These adverse mental health effects are important for several reasons, including increased recidivism risk (Call, 2016; Finlay et al., 2016). One way some of these mental health implications can be alleviated is to make employment easier for registrants.
From a clinical perspective, counselors should focus on the risk factors most prevalent to ICSOs in this capacity. Researchers suggest different approaches for individuals and their specific needs to prevent recidivism (van der Put, Assink, & Gubbels, 2020). Models such as the Risk Need Responsivity (RNR) model target the client’s criminological needs (Andrews & Bonta, 2010). In this case, counselors could target educational support, workplace conflict, financial management, and more training. This targets the ICSO’s individual criminogenic needs and allows the counselor to address specific needs within Maslow’s hierarchy, such as survival needs (money, employment, etc.) and emotional ones (self-esteem, belonging, self-actualization).
Renewed efforts surrounding employment bonding programs at both the state and federal levels have shown some success in helping to place formerly incarcerated persons in better job positions. For example, through the Federal Bonding Program, employers in Texas can apply for fidelity bonds to cover at-risk applicants. These bonds start almost immediately after the employer files for the bond (Texas Workforce Commission, 2022). This coverage lasts for six months, is usually $5,000 per applicant, and is free to the employer who requests the fidelity bond. Since its inception in 1966, more than 40,000 formerly incarcerated people have found employment success through the Federal Bonding Program, with roughly 99% of bonded employees being categorized as honest after the initial six-month bonding period (Legal Action Center, 2022).
While the program has helped thousands of reentering citizens, this program could be utilized more. The formerly incarcerated are often considered better workers who are more reliable than people who have never been incarcerated, as they have more to lose and are often more eager to build their lives back up (Brent, 2017). This generality also extends to ICSOs, as many reentering citizens are dedicated to maintaining their employment because it is so hard to secure in the first place. These individuals are highly motivated to work but are not often afforded interview opportunities because they are considered at-risk applicants. Increased usage of the Federal Bonding Program would further aid ICSOs and other formerly incarcerated persons in their reentry efforts. From a prevention standpoint, extending these programs serves as a risk-reducing protective factor for ICSOs. Employment security has been shown to be one of the least important considerations for desistance from sexual offending, yet one often viewed as static (Harris, 2020).
Second, research suggests that education and vocational training typically plays an important role in hiring practices. Research indicates that having a vocational trade increased the likelihood of securing employment by 18%, and having a college degree increased the odds of employment by 20% for individuals with criminal records (Albright & Denq, 1996). As education is shown to be such a vital piece of the employment puzzle, states should increase their investments in educational and vocational programs within correctional institutions. Additional findings conclude that when incarcerated persons participate in an educational program, the likelihood of achieving employment post-release increases by 13% (Davis, Rozick, Steele, Saunders & Miles, 2013). Additional research suggests that the increased chance of employment success increases by 59% when individuals earn a post-secondary degree through educational programs (Duwe & Clark, 2014). Reinvestment into prison educational programs is also associated with lower recidivism rates for individuals with criminal records.
Although citizens and lawmakers are reluctant to fund educational, vocational, and other reentry programs, these programs provide many benefits for reentering persons (Duwe & Clark, 2014). By limiting ICSOs’ access to these reentry and bonding programs, we have created an environment in which employers and others must now balance their concern about hiring someone who might pose a risk versus what might happen when these individuals cannot obtain employment. This disjunct calls for reform that benefits ICSOS, the community, and the employer in a reasonable way. ICSOs, in particular, face specific struggles when working on their reentry post-conviction. These individuals need to overcome their criminal records during their employment search and meet the additional barrier of being identified as a registrant by employers and co-workers. As evidenced in this study, ICSOs are experiencing multiple negative impacts due to their struggles to find steady employment with a livable wage. Without additional resources being provided to this reentering population, they will continue to struggle with the reentry process post-conviction. Otherwise, the far-reaching effects of these employment implications will have a lasting impact on ICSOs for years to come.
Ackerman, A. R., Sacks, M., & Osier, L. N. (2013). The experiences of registered sex offenders with internet offender registries in three states. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 52(1), 29-45.
Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (2010). The psychology of criminal conduct (5th ed.). New Providence, NJ: LexisNexis Matthew Bender.
Albright, S. & Denq, F. (1996). Employer attitudes toward hiring ex-offenders. Prison Journal, 76(2), 118-137.
Bailey, D. J. S. & Klein, J. (2018). Ashamed and alone: Comparing offender and family member experiences with the sex offender registry. Criminal Justice Review, 43(4), 440-457.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101.
Brent, S. L. (2019). Positive information for transforming hiring managers’ biases hindering employment for black male ex-offenders in Riverside County (Publication No. 28086533). [Doctoral Dissertation, Argosy University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Burchfield, K. B. (2012). Assessing community residents’ perceptions of local registered sex offenders: Results from a pilot study. Deviant Behavior, 33(4), 241-259.
Call, C. (2016). The collateral consequences of sex offender management policies: Views from professionals. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(3), 676-696.
Corde, B. (2021). Engaging an unseen workforce: Perceived hiring manager barriers when employing returning citizens (Publication No. 28412017). [Master’s thesis, Northern Kentucky University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Couloute, L. & Kopf, D. (2018). Out of prison & out of work: Unemployment among formerly incarcerated people. Prison Policy Initiative.
Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. V. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. RAND Corporation.
Duwe, G. & Clark, V. (2014). The effects of prison-based educational programming on recidivism and employment. Prison Journal, 94(4), 454-478.
Finlay, A. K., McGuire, J., Bronson, J., & Sreenivasan, S. (2019). Veterans in prison for sexual offenses: Characteristics and reentry service needs. Sexual Abuse, 31(5), 560-579.
Frith, H., & Gleeson, K. (2004). Clothing and embodiment: Men managing body image and appearance. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 5(1), 40-48.
Freeman, N. J. & Sandler, J. C. (2010). The Adam Walsh Act: A false sense of security or an effective public policy initiative? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 21(1), 31–49.
Gonzalez, J. M. & Connell, N. M. (2014). Mental health of prisoners: Identifying barriers to mental health treatment and medication continuity. American Journal of Public Health, 104(12): 2328-2333.
Harris, D. A. (2021). Desistance from sexual offending. Current Psychiatry Reports, 23(2), 1-7.
Harris, D. A., & Levenson, J. (2021). Life on “the list” is a life lived in fear: Post-conviction traumatic stress in men convicted of sexual offenses. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 65(6–7), 763–789.
Harris, A. J., Levenson, J. S., & Ackerman, A. R. (2014). Registered sex offenders in the United States: Behind the numbers. Crime & Delinquency, 60(1), 3–33.
Jeglic, E. L., Mercado, C. C. & Levenson, J. S. (2012). The prevalence and correlates of depression and hopelessness among sex offenders subject to community notification and residence restriction legislation. American Journal of Criminal Justice 37, 46–59.
Katsman, K. & Jeglic, E. L. (2020). An analysis of self-reported suicide attempts and ideation in a national sample of incarcerated individuals convicted of sexual crimes. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 26(2), 212-231.
Klein, J. L., Bailey, D. J. S., and Sample, L. (2018). Researching the registered: Challenges and suggestions for researchers studying sex offender populations. Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society, 31(2), 192-211.
Klein, J. L. and Cooper, D. T. (2019). Punitive attitudes toward sex offenders: Do moral panics cause community members to be more punitive? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 30(6), 948-968.
Klein, J. L., Tolson, D., & Collins, C. (2014). Lamenting the list: A partial test of Sherman’s defiance theory as applied to female sex offenders. Contemporary Justice Review: Issues in Criminal, Social, and Restorative Justice, 17(3), 326-345.
Lasher, M.P. & McGrath, R.J. (2012). The impact of community notification of sex offender registration: A quantitative review of the research literature. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 56(1), 6-28.
Legal Action Center. (n.d.). Fidelity bonding program. Retrieved on June 31, 2022 from, https://www.lac.org/resource/federal-bonding-program.
Letourneau, E. J., Harris, A. J., Shields, R. T., Walfield, S. M., Ruzicka, A. E., Buckman, C., Kahn, G. D., & Nair, R. (2018). Effects of juvenile sex offender registration on adolescent well-being: An empirical examination. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(1), 105–117.
Levenson, J. S., & Cotter, L. P. (2005). The impact of sex offender residence restrictions: 1,000 feet from danger or one step from absurd? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 49(2), 168-178.
Levenson, J., & D'Amora, D. A. (2007). Social policies designed to prevent sexual violence: The emperor's new clothes. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18(2), 168- 199.
Levenson, J. S., D’Amora, D. A., & Hern, A. L. (2007). Megan’s Law and its impact on community reentry for sex offenders. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 25(4), 587-602.
Mancini, C. (2014). Sex Crime, Offenders, and Society: A Critical Look at Sexual Offending and Policy. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Mercado, C. C., Alvarez, M. S., & Levenson, J. (2008). The impact of specialized sex offender legislation on community reentry. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 20(2), 188-205.
Petersilia, J. (2003). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reentry. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Santini, I., Koyanagi, A., Tyrovolas, S.A., Mason, C. A. & Haro, J. B. (2015). The association between social relationships and depression: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 175(1), 53-65.
Tewksbury, R. (2004). Experiences and attitudes of registered female sex offenders. Federal Probation, 68(3), 30-33.
Tewksbury, R. (2005). Collateral consequences of sex offender registration. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 21(1), 67-81.
Tewksbury, R. (2013). Sex offenders and campus-based sex offender registration: Stigma, vulnerability, isolation, and the classroom as refuge. Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology, 1(2), 1-25.
Tewksbury, R. & Jennings, W. G. (2010). Assessing the impact of sex offender registration and community notification on sex-offending trajectories. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 37(5), 570-582.
Tewksbury, R., Jennings, W. G., Zgoba, K. M. (2012). A longitudinal examination of sex offender recidivism prior to and following the implementation of SORN. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 30(3), 308-328.
Texas Workforce Commission (2021, September 21). Fidelity bonding. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://www.twc.texas.gov/jobseekers/fidelity-bonding.
van der Put, C. E., Assink, M., & Gubbels, J. (2020). Differences in risk factors for violent, nonviolent, and sexual offending. Journal of Forensic Psychology, Research, and Practice, 20(4), 341-361.
Visher, C., & Mallik-Kane, K. (2007). Reentry experiences of men with health problems. In R. Greifinger (Ed.), Public health is public safety: Improving public health through correctional health care (pp. 432-447). New York, NY/Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Wallace, D., Fahmy, C., Cotton, L., Jimmons, C., McKay, R., Stoffer, S. & Syed, S. (2016). Examining the role of familial support during prison and after release on post-incarceration mental health. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 60(1), 3-20.
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, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 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 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 sex offender policy for 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.