VERA Institute of Justice (PDF file) : The Pursuit of Safety: Sex Offender Policy in the United States
This report was prepared by the Vera Institute of Justice under grant 2006-WP-BX-K329 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime.
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.
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.
Table of Contents
Current Issues in Sex Offender Policy
Sex Offender Registries
Pursuit of Safety: Are We Safer?
Appendices ......... Includes comprehensive state-by-state details of sex offender laws.
Vera Institute of Justice Study (PDF) : Treatment and Reentry Practices for Sex Offenders: An Overview of States