Crime and Stigma: New Research Explores the Connections

The colonial Americans famously had their “scarlet letter” punishments, which marked and shamed the criminal. Today, the stigma of a conviction may be less vividly displayed, but it is no less real. Two interesting new criminological articles present research on the impact of this stigma.

First, an article by Jeff Bouffard and LaQuana Askew considers potential crime-reducing benefits of stigma, specifically in relation to sex offender registration and notification (SORN) laws. Such laws, adopted across the United States in the 1990s, require certain convicted sex offenders to register their residence and other information with state authorities on an ongoing basis, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The information is then made publicly available, which can greatly magnify the duration and intensity of the stigma of the conviction.

It was thought that SORN laws might reduce sexual offending in two ways: by deterring prospective offenders from committing crimes that might land them on a registry, and by alerting potential victims to the proximity of individuals who were already registered and hence possibly dangerous. However, several studies thus far have found little or no reduction in offending in the wake of the adoption of SORN legislation.


Bouffard and Askew add to this literature by studying the impact of SORN legislation in one local jurisdiction, Harris County, Texas (Houston). This is a narrower geographic focus than in other studies, which considered particular states or the nation as a whole, but the authors benefit from this narrowness by being able to perform a finer-grained analysis of court filings.

The results, though, are no more encouraging than the earlier research. Bouffard and Askew found no relationship between the initial implementation of SORN in 1991 and the subsequent frequency of sexual offense charges in Harris County, even after breaking down the data into adult-victim and child-victim cases and distinguishing between first-time and repeat offenders. Nor did they find any impact from subsequent expansions of the Texas SORN law in 1997 and 2005. There was, in short, no evidence of crime-reducing benefits from the amplification of sex offender stigma that was attempted in successive waves of SORN legislation.

The second article, by Megan Denver, Justin Pickett, and Shawn Bushway, focuses not on the actual rate of reoffending by those who bear the mark of a criminal conviction, but on public perceptions of recidivism risk. These perceptions are important, because fear of re-offense can greatly hinder the ability of returning prisoners to reintegrate successfully into free society. Much research in recent years has demonstrated that former prisoners often encounter much difficulty in securing employment and housing, which may exacerbate their likelihood of a return to prison.

Denver and her coauthors conducted two studies. The first focused on the choice of words used to describe those who bear criminal convictions. The authors contrast “crime-first” with “person-first” language. The former sorts of terminology reduce the person to the crime, e.g., when we refer to a person as a “criminal,” “convict,” or “offender.” By contrast, “person-first” language implicitly indicates that there is more to the person than his or her unlawful conduct, e.g., “individual convicted of a crime.”

The researchers sought to determine if using one sort of language instead of the other tends to establish different perceptions of recidivism risk. They asked a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,000 survey respondents to assess the recidivism risk of people convicted of three different sorts of crime (violent, property, and drug). Half of the respondents were randomly assigned to crime-first language; they were asked to rate the risk of “convicted criminals.” The other half got person-first language; they were asked about “people convicted of crime.”

Interestingly, language choice seemed not to affect the perceptions of risk posed by individuals with property and drug convictions. However, “convicted criminals” with violent offenses were rated as significantly more likely to recidivate than “people” with violent convictions. There seems, in short, a particularly powerful stigma associated with bearing the label “violent criminal” or “violent offender.”

Indeed, both the crime-first and person-first respondents rated the risk of people with violent offenses as higher than the risk of the other offender categories. The data, however, indicate that in reality people with property and drug convictions are actually more likely to recidivate.

In the second study by Denver et al., the researchers sought to determine how different sorts of convictions affect attitudes about employment. More specifically, they asked a set of survey respondents whether they would support or oppose turning away a hypothetical job applicant on the basis of a specified conviction, varying the type and age of the conviction and the nature of the job at issue. They found significantly stronger support for denying employment to people with a violent conviction than with a property or drug conviction. They also found significantly greater concern about more recent convictions and about hiring a person with a conviction into a health-care job than a retail or construction job.

The second study thus reinforces the conclusion that violent convictions carry a uniquely strong stigma, but also suggests that laypeople tend to hold nuanced views about whether and under what circumstances a conviction should disqualify a person from employment, recognizing distinctions based on the age of the conviction and the nature of the job.

The Bouffard-Askew article, entitled “Time-Series Analyses of the Impact of Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law Implementation and Subsequent Modifications on Rates of Sexual Offenses,” is forthcoming in Crime & Delinquency.

The Denver-Pickett-Bushway article, entitled “The Language of Stigmatization and the Mark of Violence: Experimental Evidence on the Social Construction and Use of Criminal Record Stigma,” is forthcoming in Criminology.