There’s a striking difference between the sex offender featured in most journalism, activist campaigns and popular media and the guy who’s usually the focus of criminal justice attention. The latter is usually a person of color. The sex offender is portrayed as white.
But is the sex offender really white?
Yes, this group is more racially proportionate to the general population than, say, drug offenders. But like every other criminal population, people convicted and punished for sex crimes are disproportionately African-American.
Six in 10 people in prison are nonwhite. But two-thirds of convicted sex offenders are white. In other words, sex offenders comprise the only criminal population in which white people are represented roughly in proportion to their numbers in the general population. Among those who are publicly listed on the registries, more than two-thirds are also white, according to an ongoing analysis by Alissa Ackerman and colleagues of over 445,000 publicly registered sex offenders in all 50 states, the federal government, and the U.S. protectorates.
Still, the analysis found, black people are disproportionate represented on the registries. African Americans account for 22 percent of publicly listed registered sex offenders nationally; they make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Limited data are available on race and juvenile sex offenders (JSOs). But preliminary research published in 2015 by Rebecca L. Fix and colleagues in Sex Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment suggests a similar pattern. Looking at a sample of juvenile offenders in Alabama, the study found that while the state’s juvenile population is 32 percent African-American, 41 percent of JSOs and 67 percent of non-JSOs were African-American. “African American youth were overrepresented among confined JSOs and non-JSOs,” the authors write, “yet African Americans were significantly less overrepresented among JSOs compared with non-JSOs.” The same is true for adult criminal populations.
Adding to the skewed numbers, like other arrestees, defendants, and inmates, people convicted of sex offenses move through criminal justice systems structured by racial bias. Prosecutors are more likely to charge a man of color with rape, and juries are more likely to convict.
Racialized assumptions are also built into sex crimes policy and forensic practices, from the statute defining an offense’s seriousness—and therefore the severity of its penalty—to the instruments used to assess a person’s risk of reoffending. For instance, assessment tools such as the Static-99 give higher risk “points” to the sexual assault of a stranger—a crime for which African-Americans are convicted more than whites—than they do to incest, which is more likely to be reported by white families. Risk points are also added for prior convictions, whether for sexual or nonsexual crimes—another disadvantage to people of color disproportionately arrested, charged and convicted.
Sex offenders may be “whiter,” but it is likely that non-white sex offenders receive more significant charges and face more prison time and more rigid terms of parole and probation than white sex offenders.