Punishing Sex Offenders

Punishing Sex Offenders

Monday, April 05, 2021

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Counterproductive Policies & Laws

Society considers child sexual offenders to be one of the worst criminal elements. This is due to the fact that child sex crimes have horrific long-lasting effects including: “psychological dysfunction, self-esteem loss, and negative lifestyle impacts” (Woodhams, Gillett, & Grant, 2007). These negative views and impacts on victims have led to implementation of stiff penalties for crimes against children. However, the heinous nature of these crimes has also led to policies that are based on emotion rather than evidence and this is often counterproductive for stopping the problem.

Lack of Definition

One of the major issues with policy and lawmaking concerning child sex offenders is the problem of defining a sex offender. There is no legal definition for a child sex offender and this creates a situation where the law in one state views a child sex offender differently than in another state. This problem stems from the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act which was supposed to assist in defining child sex offenders and their treatment. The Walsh Act is composed of a three-tier system of classification with Tier 3 being the most serious of offenders (Przybylski, 2011). This system mandates different levels of registration as a sex offender such as Tier 3 requiring sex offenders to report their whereabouts on a every three months with lifetime registration requirements (Przybylski, 2011). The Act makes failure to comply a felony offense. The problem is that this Act is not applicable in all states and the states that have not adopted these requirements continue to define and treat sex offenders in their own legal way.

The Act itself is designed with the intention of safeguarding the communities in which sex offenders live and reducing recidivism rates through public knowledge of the risk. This fear of recidivism has been the primary driver for the Act and registration. This practice continues despite the fact that there are serious incoherence in the law. This is due to the fact that the Act is based on emotion rather than science. This is especially true in the case of juvenile sex offenders because depending on the case these individuals can be labeled for life:

There are also criticisms of the application of these laws to juveniles. The referral of a juvenile to a registry can create significant stigma as the juvenile becomes labeled. Consequently, after having successfully completed sex offender treatment, the juvenile may have significant difficulty reintegrating into an education system if the offender’s peers become aware of his or her appearance on a registry. Recently, an author of this chapter consulted on a 12-year-old girl with significantly delayed social skills who was convicted of Lewd Act on a Minor after she was found playing with several 6-year-old children in her neighborhood and they had all removed their clothing. She could not return to her school of origin after her picture was picked up from her state’s internet sex offender registry and was posted around the school by her peers (Frierson, Dwyer, Bell, & Williamson, 2004).

These issues with registration are likely due to the fact that the public and policymakers tend to overreact to sex crimes with children. Because of this issue, another issue is born which is a lack of data.

Lack of Data

There is a real problem in this area of policy making because there are few solid statistics due to the fact that defining sex offenders is an ambiguous area (Chaffin, 2008). Along with definition issues there is also the fact that recidivism rates are difficult to quantify in sex offenders. This is due to the fact that there are measurement issues stemming from plea agreements, underreporting by victims, as well as measuring the different states which do not all comply with the Walsh Act. According to the Office of Justice Programs (2011), continued studies on sex offenders can provide:

1) they can provide an empirical basis for better understanding the differential public safety risks posed by different types of convicted sex offenders, 2) they can help identify the risk factors that are related to recidivism and 3) they can help policymakers and practitioners design and deliver more tailored and effective recidivism reduction strategies (Przybylski, 2011).

Lack of data provides an inaccurate picture of the problem and policies that were enacted in haste or through emotionalism are prevalent throughout the child sexual crime law.

Ineffective Laws & Policies

One of the universal areas of law is the differentiation of child sex crime by their severity (Levenson & D’Amora, 2007). However, public fear has guided this are of law as well and led to the creation of registries both at the federal and state level. This form of policy making has proven to be insufficient to correcting the problem from both a criminal justice and social standpoint (Levenson & D’Amora, 2007). A strong example of this problem is in the one size fits all approach to dealing with sex offenders in the community. Mandatory registration and public notifications are often the standard for many cities and towns in the US, this practice is less than perfect:

…that a registration requirement without public notification reduces reported sex crime substantially, most likely through better police monitoring and more effective apprehension of recidivists. For a state with an average-sized registry, a registration requirement reduces crime by about 13 percent from the sample mean. The drop-in crime gets larger as registries grow larger, indicating that registry laws lower crime by discouraging registered offenders from re-offending, as opposed to discouraging potential first-time offenders (Rockoff & Prescott, 2008).

Statistically speaking, registration works more effectively when it is not using public notification. It is not fully understood why this occurs, but it is believed that police monitoring and management of registered individuals is more effective in nonnotification situations (Rockoff & Prescott, 2008). Another factor that may be impacting the success of registration is that there are few studies of recidivism rates in different types of offenders:

While the knowledge base regarding recidivism rates is less extensive for specific types of sex offenders than it is for sex offenders overall, several important studies on the recidivism rates of rapists and child molesters have been published in recent years (Przybylski, 2011).

There is a clear trend in registration policies and laws that are designed to be limiting and safeguard the community, but these laws have no basis in science. The few studies that are available contradict the idea that registration works. The largest study performed showed that the greatest benefit from national registration was an 11% drop in first-time offences when the Walsh Act into effect (Letourneau, Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010). Since 1999, there has been no significant reduction in new child sex offences or recidivism rates; and the registries continue to grow (Letourneau, Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010). Clearly, current policies are not working, and more study is needed.

A Call for Practical Solutions

It is difficult to view child sex crimes and remain objective. The horrific nature of these crimes almost forces and emotional response. However, many of the policies and laws today such as monitoring, and registration do not seem to be working. With no declines in these crimes since the 1999, it would seem obvious that the expansion of these policies and laws have no benefit except in the short term (Przybylski, 2011). However, not enough data has been collected to fully understand why these policies are a failure. More questions need to be asked and other alternatives may need to be considered. For instance, it was found that 95% of all sex offenses in a 21-year period were committed by first-time offenders while the highest recidivism rates were in the smaller 5% group (Letourneau, Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010). It is a myth that all sex offenders continue to commit sex offenses. The problem is that the largest rates of recidivism are in the smallest most severe offenders and because these individuals are not study and typed properly this leads to broad sweeping legislation and policy intended to reduce or deter all offenders. A more effective approach would be to study offender types and increase incarceration time for those who commit the most severe crimes.


Chaffin, M. (2008). Our Minds Are Made Up — Don’t Confuse Us With the Facts: Commentary on Policies Concerning Children With Sexual Behavior Problems and Juvenile Sex Offenders. Child Maltreat, 13(110).

Frierson, R. L., Dwyer, R. G., Bell, C. C., & Williamson, J. L. (2004). The mandatory registration of juvenile sex offenders and commitment of juveniles as sexually violent predators Controversies and recommendations’. APA, American Psychiatric Association Workshop. APA.

Letourneau, E. J., Levenson, J. S., Bandyopadhyay, D., Sinha, D., & Armstrong, K. S. (2010, September). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Sex Offender Registration and Notification Policies for Reducing Sexual Violence against Women. Retrieved from Medical University of South Carolina: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/231989.pdf

Levenson, J. S., & D’Amora, D. A. (2007, June). Social Policies Designed to Prevent Sexual Violence. The Emperor’s New Clothes? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18(2), 168–199.

Przybylski, R. (2011). Chapter 5: Adult Sex Offender Recidivism. Retrieved from Office of Justice Programs: https://smart.gov/SOMAPI/sec1/ch5_recidivism.html

Rockoff, J. E., & Prescott, J. J. (2008). Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior? Journal of Law and Economics, 54(1), 23.

Woodhams, J., Gillett, R., & Grant, T. (2007, February). Understanding the Factors That Affect the Severity of Juvenile Stranger Sex Offenses The Effect of Victim Characteristics and Number of Suspects. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(2), 218–237.

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash


Vincent Triola. Mon, Apr 05, 2021. Punishing Sex Offenders Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/punishing-sex-offenders

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