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Sex Offender Laws: Can Treatment, Punishment, Incapacitation, and Public Safety Be Reconciled?

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Review Volume: 27 Issue: 2 Dated: Autumn 2002 Pages: 256-283
Mary Ann Farkas; Amy Stichman
Date Published
28 pages
This study examined the underlying assumptions and justifications for sex offender laws, with attention to whether treatment, punishment, and public safety can be reconciled as justifications for the laws.
Sex offenders are generally viewed by the public and legislators as more objectionable, less treatable, more dangerous, and more likely to recidivate than most other types of offenders. In recent years, sex offenders have become the focus of intense legal scrutiny, primarily through laws that target them for indefinite confinement, registration and community notification, polygraph testing, and chemical castration. This study involved a comprehensive review of the legal, health science, and social science literature, as well as an exploration of relevant court cases, legal analyses, and law reviews concerning the intent and goals of the laws. The theoretical and research literature was examined to determine the types, behaviors, and motivations of sex offenders and the therapeutic approaches for the various kinds of sex offenders. The authors conclude that laws and policies that target sex offenders are designed to punish and incapacitate them for fear of what they might do in the future rather than for their crimes of conviction. Civil commitment laws provide a process for indefinitely confining a sex offender. Community notification, chemical castration, and polygraph statutes extend social control over the sex offender released to the community. The controls are justified by policymakers as necessary to help sex offenders to change or to manage their behavior, as well as to be reintegrated into society; however, the practical effects of the laws are usually punitive and incapacitative, subverting any genuine attempt at treatment. Lacking any differentiation among sex offenders and absent any effective treatment or emphasis on long-term behavioral change, it is unlikely that these laws will provide community protection. 109 references