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Sex Offenders on Campus: University-based Sex Offender Registries and the Collateral Consequences of Registration

12-1-2006 National:

SEX OFFENDERS HAVE long been considered among the most despised and feared criminals in Western culture. Despite the varying circumstances and offenses that may be included by lawmaking bodies as “sex offenses,” the mere mention of the phrase “sex offender” typically conjures up images of sadistic rapists and child predators. Accordingly, prevention of these types of crimes has been a concern of policymakers at all levels of government for many years. Correctional programming for sex offenders and other types of “violent” or “heinous” criminals has traditionally included either simply incarcerating such offenders for purposes of incapacitation, or at times providing treatment in pursuit of rehabilitation for incarcerated offenders. Convicted offenders in community corrections programs have also been subjected to a variety of mandatory treatment programs, medical interventions and strict conditions of probation and parole.


The outcomes of such registries, however, including the effects of such specialized registries on offenders, have yet to be studied. As a result, policymakers and society as a whole are unaware of the potential consequences and considerations that may be associated with such specialized forms of sex offender registries.

This study is intended to promote a better understanding of college and university-based sex offender registries, allowing for the transfer of important practical and ideological knowledge about such entities to policymakers and the public. The data, to be discussed later in greater detail, is gathered via surveys with a sample of offenders listed on university-based registries. Analysis of their experiences and perceptions provides one way of assessing the utility of sex offender registries—both in general and in this specialized form—as a tool for effectively enhancing public safety and promoting community awareness.



Data for the current study were collected through mailed, anonymous surveys sent to all persons listed on a sex offender registry maintained by a four-year public college or university in the United States. To identify such individuals, websites for all 579 four-year, public colleges and universities were searched to find those institutions with a publicly-accessible sex offender registry (SOR). A total of 39 (or 6.7 percent of all reviewed institutions) university-maintained SORs were identified. These registries included listings of 113 individuals.

Once identified, each individual’s name and address was recorded and checked for accuracy (i.e., correspondence) with the respective state-wide sex offender registry. All 113 registrants were mailed a cover letter, informed consent explanation, survey, and postage-paid return-addressed envelope. The Human Studies Protection Program Office at the authors’ institution reviewed all materials. Data collection was conducted in January, 2006.


A total of 26 completed surveys were returned. This represents a response rate of 24 percent. 1 While this is not a very high response rate, this needs to be understood as a difficult to reach population. Due to experiences of stigma, media exploitation, and skepticism regarding researchers and other “officials” (Tewksbury & Lees, in press), registered sex offenders may be a population especially unlikely to accept invitations to participate in research. Additionally, response rates and sample sizes of this magnitude are common in research with registered sex offenders (Sack & Mason, 1980; Tewksbury, 2004, 2005, 2006; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006, in press; Vandiver & Walker, 2002). Because the response rate is not large, results need to be viewed with caution.

The sample is almost exclusively male (96.2 percent), white (92.3 percent) and older than the typical college student (mean age = 39.6, median = 38.5). The sample includes students (65.4 percent), employees (27.0 percent) and individuals who are both students and employees (7.6 percent). Students in the sample are also older than the typical college student (mean = 36.4, whereas in 2002–2003 only 18.6 percent of university students were age 35 or older) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). The sample represents individuals from ten states. 2
1 Four surveys were returned undelivered due to either insufficient, non-existent addresses, or the registrant no longer residing at the residence and having no forwarding address.

2 The largest proportion of respondents come from Florida (34.6 percent) as well as from Texas (19.2 percent), Ohio (11.5 percent), Illinois (11.5 percent), 3.8 percent from Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

As shown in Table 1, the offenses for which these individuals are registered are primarily offenses against children (65.4 percent), known to the offender (i.e., not strangers, 92.3 percent) and these individuals typically report having had only one victim (7 percent report multiple victims).


The data collection instrument was designed specifically for this study. The instrument is a four-page questionnaire containing 41 closed-ended and 2 open-ended items. The items assess demographics, offense characteristics, questions about experiences with collateral consequences and public recognition as a RSO.

The primary variables of interest in this study are self-reports by registrants regarding 13 forms of collateral consequences (focusing on both on-campus and off-campus experiences) and four items regarding perceptions of stigmatization and social impediments to academic progress/success.


Collateral Consequences

As shown in Table 2, at least one-third of the sample reports having experienced each of six of the 13 surveyed collateral consequences. Additionally, for all but two of these experiences, students are more likely than university employees to report having had such experiences. Most common among the collateral consequences reported by this sample of RSOs is employment difficulties. Two-thirds (65.4 percent) of the entire sample, and nearly 4 of every 5 students (78.9 percent) report having lost or not received a job, because they believed they were discriminated against due to their status as a RSO. Also common among the reported collateral consequences are housing difficulties, verbal and written harassment away from campus, and loss of friends. read the full study.. by Richard Tewksbury and Matthew B. Lees, Department of Justice Administration, University of Louisville

Table 1: Victims of RSOs on University SORs
Type of VictimPct of RSOs
Child Victim/s65.4%
Stranger Victim/s7.7%
Relative Victim/s26.9%
Friend / Acquaintance Victim/s50.0%
Female Victim/s69.3%
Male Victim/s 19.2%

Table 2: Reported Collateral Consequences
Collateral ConsequenceALL RSOsStudents*Employees*
Not hired for, or fired from a job65.4%78.9%44.4%
Denied a promotion at work15.4%15.8%11.1%
Had a academic performance suffer26.3%----
Lost / Denied a place to live42.3%47.4%22.2%
Treated rudely in public34.6%50.0%22.2%
Lost a friend who discover status as RSO42.3%50.0%44.4%
Lost a significant other19.2%15.8%22.2%
Harassed in person away from campus34.6%31.6%33.3%
Harassed in person on campus11.5%15.8%--
Assaulted away from campus3.8%5.3%--
Assaulted on campus3.8%5.3%--
Rec. harassing telephone calls15.4%21.1%--
Rec. harassing mail / notes / flyers38.5%47.4%11.1%
*Pct. of students and staff, both include two resp. who report being both, a student and employee on campus   

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