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THE PURSUIT OF SAFETY: Sex Offender Policy in the United States

September 2008:

Tracy Velázquez. The Pursuit of Safety: Sex Offender Policy in the United States. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2008.

Executive Summary
Local, state, and federal policymakers have paid ever more attention to sex offenses over the past 20 years. In the wake of several high profile crimes by strangers against children in particular, they have crafted a growing body of legislation intended to protect the public from sexual predators. This legislation has expanded the scope of crimes that qualify as sex offenses, over the past decade more than doubled the number of people required to register as sex offenders, increased sentences for people found guilty of sex offenses, and established strategies designed to manage convicted sex offenders after their incarceration. Examples of these latter strategies include registration, community notification requirements, residency restrictions, electronic monitoring, and civil commitment.

The proliferation of these responses has generated little consensus about which available strategies are most effective. Consequently, many policymakers concerned about using public funds to maximize outcomes (consistent with the principles of fairness and justice) understandably are confused about their options for deterring would-be offenders, reducing recidivism, and incapacitating the most dangerous offenders. With support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (part of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs), the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice conducted a nationwide review of current sex offender laws, policies, and trends. This report represents the results of that systemic analysis.

Analysis reveals that the public supports current national legislative focus on responding to sex offenses and presume that these responses have contributed to the drop in sex offenses that has been recorded in recent years. However, it is unclear whether any of these measures have had a significant impact on sex offense rates. In large part, this is because most policies are aimed at predation by strangers, whereas sex offenses are more often committed by family members and acquaintances. In addition, a concurrent overall decrease in violent crime makes it difficult to identify the influence of the sex offender legislation on reductions in sexual offending. And several policies—particularly residency restrictions and community notification—may have negative impacts on public safety due to the impediments they create to successful reintegration of offenders who have completed their sanctions. Registration itself appears to somewhat reduce recidivism, but not for offenses against strangers. Electronic monitoring has shown some positive outcomes in some jurisdictions while having little impact in others, particularly those where it has been recently implemented. And while effective at incapacitating offenders, civil confinement is four times as expensive as incarceration and to date has not been particularly successful at treating offenders.

Finally, it appears that the public opinion that often drives policy in the sex offender realm is based on the belief that sex offenders are dangerous strangers who are apt to victimize children and re-offend. In reality, however, most sex offenders don’t re-offend, and the definition of a sex offender is broad and encompasses different types of offenses, some more severe than others. Moreover, children are more at risk of being sexually victimized by a family member or other person known to them than they are by a stranger living a block away from their home or school.

For the remainder of this study: by Tracy Velázquez, Vera Institute of Justice

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