Vol. XXVIII, No. 2
Spring 2016
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Risk of sexual recidivism among women: The importance of base rates
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Juvenile Sex Offender Registration: Its Relationship to Depression in Adulthood
What Does the General Public Know and Want to Know About Sex Offenders?
Help Wanted: Lessons on Prevention from Non-Offending Young Adult Pedophiles
A Meta-Change Maintenance Model: Effective Strategies to Maintain a Pro-Social Lifestyle
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An Examination of the Construct Validity of Hebephilia
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Open Dialogues and Anticipations: Respecting Otherness in the Present Moment
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Featured Articles
Juvenile Sex Offender Registration: Its Relationship to Depression in Adulthood
Sharon E. Denniston, Ph.D. in PPA Law and Public Policy

Introduction

The issue of sexual abuse rightfully demands our attention. Juveniles are involved on both sides of it—as victims, and as offenders subject to sex offender registration and notification (SORN) policies.  The growing body of research finds that SORN policies as applied to juvenile offenders fails to achieve intended public policy safety goals (Batistini, Hunt, Present-Koller, & DeMatteo, 2011; Caldwell & Dickinson, 2009; Caldwell, Ziemke, & Vitacco, 2008; Letourneau & Armstrong, 2008; Letourneau, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2009b; Letourneau, Bandyopadhyay, Armstrong, & Sinha, 2010; Stevenson, Najdowski, & Wiley, 2013).  For example, such policies have been found to have no deterrent effect, as recidivism rates are the same for juvenile sex offenders who were required to register and those who were not (Caldwell & Dickinson, 2009; Letourneau & Armstrong, 2008; Letourneau, et al., 2010). 

Given the questionable efficacy of registering juveniles as sex offenders, the assessment of whether this policy has adverse unintended consequences becomes significantly more important.  However, little is known about the impacts of SORN on juvenile offenders.  This study contributes to a broader understanding of the effects of juvenile sex offender registration policy.    

This study examined whether a predictive relationship exists between sex offender registration for a juvenile offense and severity of depression in current and former registrants after they have matured into adulthood, and whether the relationship persists when there is no longer a duty to register as a sex offender. 

Methodology

Data from a self-report survey was collected from 165 adult participants between 21 and 39 years of age who were predominantly recruited through advocacy, legal, and mental health organizations.  This sample provided three criterion groups, including 36 current registrants for a juvenile offense, 23 former registrants for a juvenile offense, and 106 participants who had never had to register from the general population  (the control group).   

Participants completed an online survey that included qualifying questions, questions regarding known predictors of depression, the Public Health Questionarie-9 (PHQ-9) scale of  severity of depression, and the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale Revised (CESD-R) to provide for a test of construct validity.  Current and former registrant participants also responded to questions about characteristics related to their sex offender registration.

Results

Fourteen predictors of depression were evaluated as confounding variables.  Pearson and point-biserial analysis found that seven of these did not significantly correlate with depression in this study (race, gender, education, income, committed relationship, victim of child abuse, and learning disabilities). Analysis using hierarchical multiple regression controlled for the remaining seven depression-related predictors when examining whether a predictive relationship exists between sex offender registration for a juvenile offense and severity of depression.  Controlled predictors included: history of family psychiatric problems, history of substance abuse, history of sexual abuse (as a victim), taking medication for mental or emotional health, having experienced confinement for more than 30 days, criminal history (determined from number of offenses adjudicated and/or convicted), and parent incarceration while participant was a child.  Regression analysis provided for between-group comparisons of severity of depression, as measured by the PHQ-9, in three sets of two criterion groups.  Sets compared current registrants to those never registered, current registrants to former registrants, and former registrants to those never registered. 

After controlling for depression-related predictors, SORN significantly predicted increased severity of depression in adults currently registering for a juvenile offense, with mean PHQ-9 severity of depression score indicating moderate depression (M = 11.5), compared to former registrants (M = 7.4, mild depression, ΔR2= 0.055, B = 3.892), and the control group of those never registered (M = 4.5, borderline minimal/mild depression, ΔR2 = 0.049, B = 6.724). Former registration did not significantly predict increased severity of depression compared to the control group.  Findings validate concerns of other researchers that SORN may have iatrogenic effects for juvenile offenders (Caldwell, 2002; Chaffin & Bonner, 1998; Chaffin et al., 2002; Letourneau & Miner, 2005; Trivits & Reppucci, 2002; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2014; Zimring, 2004).     

Registration-Related Characteristics

 Seven registration-related characteristics were also evaluated as potential predictors of increased severity of depression in a combined criterion group of data from all registrants (current and former).  These included: length of registration, age at initial registration, risk tier, public notification, court of adjudication/conviction, felony/misdemeanor offense type, and subsequent sexual offense.  

Using hierarchical multiple regression, controlling for depression-related predictors, each of the seven registration-related variables was individually analyzed.  Only one of these was found to be significant. Public notification of registration was found to significantly predict severity of depression, negatively (ΔR2 = 0.074, B = -4.696).  This means that individuals whose registration information remained nonpublic had significantly higher severity of depression scores than those whose information was made public, either on the internet or through some other form of dissemination such as flyers, letters, or e-mail notifications. This finding was unexpected. Nonpublic current registrants had a mean PHQ-9 severity of depression score representing moderately severe depression (M = 16.8)—the highest mean severity of depression score of public and nonpublic subgroups by current and former registration status. Nonpublic former registrants, however, had the lowest mean severity of depression score (M = 6.4, mild depression), amongst the four subgroups. ANOVA analysis found this difference to be significant.  This provides great promise that potentially iatrogenic effects of registration may be alleviated in the most severely depressed registrants after the sex offender registrant label is removed.

While current registrants whose information was nonpublic had the highest severity of depression scores (M = 16.8, moderately severe depression), current registrants whose information was public also had increased mean PHQ-9 severity of depression scores (M = 9.2, borderline mild/moderate depression), compared to former registrants whose information was public (M = 7.9, mild depression), nonpublic (M = 6.4, mild depression), and never registered individuals (M = 4.5, borderline minimal/mild depression). ANOVA analysis of differences in mean severity of depression scores in current and former public registrants was not significant.  In the two weeks prior to completing the survey, 53% of participants had suicidal thoughts on several days, and 11% had these thoughts nearly every day. 

Discussion

The ideal control group for this study would have included adult participants who were adjudicated or convicted of a juvenile sexual offense who never had to register.  This population is extremely difficult to reach.  It is especially meaningful then that current registration by a person adjudicated or convicted of a juvenile sex offense was found to significantly predict increased severity of depression compared to that of former registrants who were also adjudicated or convicted of a juvenile sex offense, and persons who have never registered that did not have a juvenile sexual offense.  This means it is probable that current registration will predict increased severity of depression compared to that of the ideal control group.  In other words, it appears that it is not involvement with the court or a sexual offense that is associated with severity of depression, but rather, sex offender labeling and registration for that juvenile offense.

Increased severity of depression was not predicted by length of registration, age at initial registration, high risk tier, public notification, court of adjudication/conviction, felony/misdemeanor offense, and subsequent sexual offense.  The exploration of the effects of these specific registration-related characteristics on juvenile offender registrants in this study forges a new path in registration research.  Findings support that simply labeling a juvenile offender as a sex offender registrant, and the basic duties of registration and stigma associated with it, has more significance to an individual’s severity of depression than specific characteristics of registration associated with it. 

While public notification did not predict increased severity of depression in a combined group of current and former registrants, nonpublic registration did.  Depression may be greater in nonpublicly registering juvenile offenders because they live in fear of having their “secret” (their registration status) discovered and disclosed publically.  Eighty-four percent of nonpublic current registrants were adjudicated in juvenile court.  Additionally, the increased mean severity of depression score for this subgroup (at the level of moderately severe depression) may occur, in part, because these youth expected to be impacted less by juvenile justice interventions for their misdeeds. After all, the basic tenet of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation and the avoidance of stigma for youthful indiscretions (United States v. Brian N., 1990; United States v. One Juvenile Male, 1994).  After maturation into adulthood, they may begin to realize how significantly they are impacted by the sex offender registrant label, even when they have demonstrated that rehabilitation has been achieved.  In addition, when state sex offender registration laws include juvenile offenders it is not uncommon that they must abide by many of the same requirements as adult offenders with regards to their duty to register with law enforcement, frequency of registration, information registered, length of registration, residency restriction, travel restrictions/requirements, and other secondary registration-related laws.  To better understand the reason for increased severity of depression in nonpublic registrants, and to validate this finding, further research is needed.

Increased mean depression scores for current and former public registrants for a juvenile offense are consistent with findings by Jeglic, Mercado, and Levenson (2012)  who found that public notification of adult sex offenders resulted in increased depressive symptoms over that of the general population.  It is noted that the difference between mean severity of depression scores of  current public and former public registrants was not significant, indicating that as a subgroup, there does appear to be a persistent depressive effect in public registrants that were adjudicated or convicted of a juvenile sex offense.  This finding is not surprising. Once information about a juvenile offender has been released to the public, “cleaning-up” information about a former registrant’s status that may have proliferated to other non-registry sources (human and media) is often difficult. In addition, these individuals are more likely to face roadblocks when obtaining an education or employment than nonpublic registrants--the fallout of which may continue to persist after a public registrant no longer has a duty to register.      

Increased severity of depression along with the prevalence of suicidal ideation in adults currently registering for a juvenile offense is consistent with the association between suicidal ideation and depression in the existing literature (Bhatta, Jefferis, Kavadas, Alemagno, Shaffer-King, 2014; Hooven, Snedker & Thompson, 2012; Lamis, et al., 2014; Stokes, McCoy, Abram, Byck, and Teplin, 2015). Social integration issues leave young adults without a “blueprint” for the role they assume in adult life, contributing to hopelessness and depression (Hooven, et al., 2012). Isolation is a key factor in suicide risk (Gould & Kramer, 2001; Hooven et al., 2012; Johnson et al., 2002).  Diminished social integration and isolation are common issues with juvenile sex offender registrants as they mature into adulthood, so it is not surprising that this study found depression and suicidal ideation in current registrants, and that it supports the existing literature. 

The recruitment of participants through advocacy, mental health, and legal support groups limits generalizability to the broader population of sex offender registrants registering for a juvenile offense, or that formerly registered for a juvenile offense. Mean severity of depression scores could possibly be lower than actually found in the general juvenile offender registrant population because these individuals may have stronger support systems.  In addition, mean scores could also be lower because persons suffering from more severe depression may be less likely to participate in a study such as this.  Two participants actually commented similarly about the survey.  Conversely, severity of depression scores could have been inflated due to participant bias (trustworthiness).  In an attempt to reduce the likelihood of this from occurring, participants were asked to confirm that they agreed to be honest when they took the survey.  Given that both the current registrant and former registrant groups had normally distributed PHQ-9 scores, it does not seem likely that participant bias resulted in inflated severity of depression scores.

Theoretical Interpretation

Merton’s concept of manifest and latent effects of purposive social action urged social science researchers to analyze both intended (manifest) functions resulting from an action, and the unintended (latent) functions as well (1967). He stressed the importance of functional analysis to determine both functional and dysfunctional consequences that contribute to the net effect of an action taken by society (1967), such as sexual offender registration of juvenile offenders. Analyzing and interpreting findings in the context of this theoretical framework, findings of this study suggest that a relationship doesexist between sanctioning juvenile sex offender registration and latent impacts to a registrant’s mental health, specifically depression, after registrants have matured into adulthood.  As previously mentioned, existing research does not support that the policy of requiring juvenile offenders to register as sex offenders has achieved its intended purpose.  These studies, coupled with findings from this study regarding the unintended consequence of depression, contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the net effects of juvenile sex offender registration policy.

Lemert’s secondary deviance proposition of labeling theory asserts that deviant labeling for a criminal act creates negative consequences for the person labeled that can lead to secondary deviant criminal behavior (1951, 1967).  Kitsuse suggested that new and different aspects of deviance should be explored (1975).  This study built upon existing labeling theory by suggesting and testing a new alternate non-criminogenic secondary deviance proposition. Analysis and findings indicate that the policy of registering a person as a sex offender for a juvenile offense is indeed related to an alternate non-criminogenic form of secondary deviance--depression.

Conclusion

In summary, SORN was found to have a significant positive predictive relationship to severity of depression in adults currently registering for a juvenile offense as compared to former registrants, and the control group of those never registered. This relationship was found above and beyond that of depression-related predictors.  Findings suggest that alternate, non-criminogenic forms of secondary deviance, specifically increased severity of depression, appear to be associated with this policy.   

Increased severity of depression was not predicted by registration-related characteristics after controlling for depression-related predictors.  In light of these findings, and because current registration for a juvenile offense does significantly predict increased severity of depression beyond predictors, it must be questioned whether simply labeling a juvenile offender as a sex offender registrant, and the basic duties of registration and stigma associated with it, are what cause the greatest harm. 

Mean severity of depression score for current registrants whose information was nonpublic was found to be significantly higher than when information was made public.  This unexpected finding may result from nonpublic registrants living in continual fear of having their registration status exposed, and from unrealized expectations that as a nonpublic registrant their life would not be significantly impacted.  As a group, a significant persistent depressive effect was not found when the sex offender registration label and related duties were removed.  Further examination found, however, a significant persistent depressive effect does appear to exist in public registrants.  Current nonpublic registrants were the most severely depressed subgroup, but appear to obtain the greatest relief; perhaps because they no longer live in fear of having their registration status publically disclosed.  Current public registrants were more moderately depressed and appear to be more prone to persistent depression; perhaps because they continue to live with the consequences of having had their registration status publicly disclosed. Furthermore, both public and nonpublic current registrants endorsed suicidal ideation, consistent with the link between suicidality and depression in the existing literature.

This study contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the net effect of SORN on juvenile offenders by extending the base of knowledge regarding the consequences of such a policy.  Awareness of these effects better informs policy decision makers and has social change implications for future sexual abuse prevention policies that can have greater likelihood of efficacy.  The most important contribution this research may make, is in answering the question posed by the U.S. Department of Justice Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative project report regarding whether the policy of labeling and registering a juvenile with sexual behavior issues as a sex offender registrant has potentially iatrogenic effects.  Findings from this research support that it does.

Correspondences regarding this article can be addressed to Sharon E. Denniston, Ph.D. PPA, Specialization - Law and Public Policy, at sdenniston@IllumineRAC.com.


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