Mugshots, Sex Offenders, and Public Shame

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

‘The photograph is an unreliable narrator telling us part of a story but giving us nothing close to the full picture,” reads a recent article from Truthout by Charles Davis. This telling statement reaches beyond the mugshot to a troubling post-incarceration reality, the sex offender registry.

Policymakers control “what they have decided to include and chosen to leave out” and “invariably affects what we, the viewer, see.” We do not know the whole story. There are some registrants that have committed serious crimes. However, there are others who are actually innocent or convicted of non-sexual crimes. All it takes is one accusation for lives to be overturned. In actuality, the photograph could be worth a thousand meaningless words. Davis’ article argues the use of mugshots leads to public shaming. Sex offender registries are echoic of the same logic used in this article.

As the article aptly states, “photos discourage empathy in favor of judgment.” The registrant is somebody to someone; a son, daughter, husband, wife, father, and so on. Yet, the registry photo shrinks the offender to a moment in time. Their life experience is “reduced to criminal” and they become “fair game for abuse.”

This abuse becomes more widespread with media pandering. Ironically, the Society for Professional Journalists cautions against “pandering to lurid curiosity,” but that has been largely ignored in regards to sex offenders. The media fails to realize sex offenders are still human. Sex offenders are portrayed as evil, despicable, and all manner of negative adjectives. Interestingly enough, some of these former offenders are juveniles and others are implicated for non-sexual crimes. “The availability of these photos works against our ability to identify with the humanity of those who’ve been arrested.” Quite simply there is no way to know who the offender actually is outside of their crime.

Furthermore, these photos create collateral consequences. Former offenders routinely have difficulty finding housing and employment. Oft times, the community may push them out. Moreover, there is the threat of vigilantism. Some experts argue that these consequences could increase recidivism. As Davis remarks, “posting their photos without any context but that provided by the state doesn’t make us safer.” If it doesn’t make us safer, what is the point?

The article leaves us with a cogent argument we can apply to the bigger problem with sex offenders:

“Those with much bigger platforms from which to name and shame ought to think carefully about how they use that power, what they are actually accomplishing when they wield it and whose interests are really being served.”

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