The Sex Crimes Panic

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Legal Scholarship

I have a new paper on SSRN regarding the seemingly endless fascination of American legislators with sex crimes.  Here is the abstract:

Sex crimes continue to be a matter of intense legislative interest at both state and federal levels of government, as evidenced by a flurry of recent enactments expanding sex offender registration requirements, prohibiting sex offenders from participating in “Halloween-related” activities, and facilitating the exclusion of sex offenders from social networking websites. Although legislative activity in the area of sex crimes has gone through regular phases of high and low intensity across the past century, the current high-intensity phase, dating from the 1980s, has lasted an unusually long time. Moreover, this high-intensity period displays the characteristics of what historians and sociologists have termed a “moral panic,” marked particularly by the rapid adoption of many new laws that seem poorly designed to achieve their community-protection aims. This Essay, which introduces a forthcoming issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter devoted to recent developments in the punishment and management of sex offenders (Vol. 21, Issue 2), offers a critical overview of the new laws and considers why the sex crimes panic has proven so much more durable than the crack cocaine panic, which also arose in the 1980s.

Laws aimed at controlling sex offenders are invariably couched as child-protection measures — and, really, who can vote against protecting children? — but pay little attention either to the social scientific evidence regarding the greatest threats of sexual violence to children (family members and acquaintances, not the random strangers caught in the ever-widening web of sex-offender registration laws) or to the possibility that scarce criminal justice resources are being increasingly diverted from more productive uses to dubious new social control measures.  Sex offenders, of course, will draw no public sympathy when it comes to legislative overreaching, but in the current fiscal climate all taxpayers have an interest in ensuring that new laws are cost-effective responses to serious social problems.  And, as the New York Times recently reported, fiscal concerns seem to be driving a backlash against one of the more misguided recent enactments in this area, the so-called Adam Walsh Act.

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