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Sex Offender Laws in America: Can Panic-Driven Legislation Ever Create Safer Societies?

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society Volume: 20 Issue: 4 Dated: December 2007 Pages: 423-443
Michelle L. Meloy; Yustina Saleh; Nancy Wolff
Date Published
December 2007
21 pages
This paper reviews the legal, social, and political history of sex offender legislation in America, and describes how these laws operate at both the Federal and State level.
The most important issues with sex offender registration, community notification, involuntary civil commitment, and mandatory sex offender therapy are the public impacts associated with these legislative and policy initiatives. Sex offender therapy is the only one of these measures that has been extensively studied, and despite meta-analysis support, some remain skeptical of sex offender treatment given the lack of experimental designs, faulty control rooms, and the possibility that additional crimes by treated sex offenders are simply never discovered. The recent evidence supports the efficacy of some therapeutic measures for some sex offenders but the conclusions are only as good as the underlying science that created them. Researchers and policymakers need to prioritize reliable and valid investigations on treatment outcomes to ensure their effectiveness and guard against unintended consequences associated with treating sex offenders. This research sampled some of the most legislatively responsive States to determine how they operate their sex offender registration and community notification programs, and how they monitor and treat sex offenders in their jurisdiction. In addition, all of the available research literature assessing the recidivistic impact of sex offender registration and community notification laws was compiled and summarized. Results indicate that even in these leading States much variation exists with respect to accessibility and notification of sex offender information, access to prison and community-based treatment, and with the goals, procedures, costs, detention, and release criteria associated with civil commitment programs. With respect to the review of existing studies that attempted to measure the public safety outcomes associated with contemporary sex offender laws, the conclusion is that there is only preliminary and uneven assessment of their deterrence effects. Sex offender legislation and States that have the most influence on these laws are summarized, and best practices detailed. Notes, references