Social policies designed to prevent sexual violence: The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Criminal Justice Policy Review: Jill S. Levenson, Ph.D., David A. D’Amora, M.S., LPC, CFC; 2007



Sex crimes provoke fear and anger among citizens, leading to the development of social policies designed to prevent sexual violence. The most common policies passed in recent years have included sex offender registration, community notification (Megan’s Law), residence restrictions, civil commitment, and electronic monitoring. The history of current sexual offender policies, their development, and their implementation is reviewed. These policies do not appear to be evidence-based in their development and implementation, as they are founded largely on myths rather than facts. Little empirical investigation has been conducted to evaluate sex offender policies, but extant research does not suggest that these policies achieve their goals of preventing sex crimes, protecting children, or increasing public safety. Recommendations are made for more effective legislative solutions, including enlisting media in the promulgation of evidence-based information, creating policies that utilize risk assessment strategies to identify high risk offenders, and facilitating a more efficient distribution of resources which reserves the most intensive restrictions and interventions for the most dangerous offenders.

Summary and conclusions

In conclusion, broad policies targeting all sex offenders and which disregard research on risk, recidivism, and responsivity are akin to the Emperor’s new clothes. People see what they want to see, despite evidence to the contrary. The shared illusion becomes a perceived reality and even those who may question what they see become afraid to articulate observations that are politically and socially undesirable. The media play a critical role in the shaping of public opinion about sex offenders. Unfortunately, a great deal of inaccurate information is promulgated by the media, which serves as a primary source of information for citizens and, often, for politicians. Enormous coverage of heartbreaking but rare cases involving child abduction and murder by previously convicted sex offenders lead to the public’s inability to distinguish between the severity of some sexual re-offenses and the likelihood of reoffending. Misinformation leads to poorly developed social policies which are unlikely to enhance public safety, and the passage of ineffective laws results in a truly inefficient use of resources. Re-shaping public opinion through the widespread dissemination of factual information is a first step in advocating for evidence-based social policies that will be more successful in protecting children. Current strategies are unlikely to achieve their goal of facilitating community safety.

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