By Kristan N. Russell and Shawn C. Marsh . . . Few crimes stimulate such visceral reactions and deep-seated fears as sexual offenses. Accordingly, societal responses to sexual offending such as registration and notification laws tend to be quite punitive and highly stigmatizing for the offender. Yet these social control practices are widely considered by the public to be essential for community safety.
However, given lessons learned about the linkages between moral panic and legislation in other justice contexts (e.g., juvenile “superpredators” and waiver/transfer laws), we question the degree to which public perceptions about the characteristics of persons who commit sexual offenses are accurate — particularly of juveniles who commit these types of offenses.
Specifically, we ask: If public sentiment drives public policy in a democracy, how accurate is the information they are basing their perceptions/attitudes on that ultimately frame legal responses to these juveniles? We propose here that the larger societal understanding of and reaction to youth who have committed a sexual offense has been disproportionately severe in comparison to the risk posed by these youth and what we understand about youth development and resiliency.
Our findings from a pilot study exploring public perceptions of these youth suggest practice and policy reform efforts should continue to incorporate a substantial public education and prevention component.
Over 200,000 individuals on a sexual offense registry are there as a result of sexual offenses they committed as a youth. Many of these registrants have been incarcerated or placed on probation due to their offense and are trying to re-enter and function successfully in society. Registration requirements often include limitations on where one can live, restrictions on computer and internet access, participation in mandatory treatment and following various reporting and notification procedures (e.g., local law enforcement, neighbors).
While these responses are often presented in the spirit of accountability and community safety, they have a substantial stigmatizing effect and potentially disrupt protective factors (e.g., introducing challenges to securing employment). These collateral consequences have been a major focus of research and efforts to reform and better design responses to this category of offense.
Youth tend to follow adolescent-limited sexual offending trajectories, meaning they no longer offend with little or even no intervention as they age and mature into adulthood. Longitudinal research concerning this population demonstrates that around 5% or less commit another sexual offense and juvenile offending is not predictive of adult offending. Further, paraphilia (e.g., highly deviant and persistent sexual attraction to very young children) is rare in juveniles.