Few crimes stimulate such visceral reactions and deep-seated fears as sexual offenses. Accordingly, societal responses to sexual offending such as registration and notification laws tend to be quite punitive and highly stigmatizing for the offender. Yet these social control practices are widely considered by the public to be essential for community safety.
However, given lessons learned about the linkages between moral panic and legislation in other justice contexts (e.g., juvenile “superpredators” and waiver/transfer laws), we question the degree to which public perceptions about the characteristics of persons who commit sexual offenses are accurate — particularly of juveniles who commit these types of offenses.
Specifically, we ask: If public sentiment drives public policy in a democracy, how accurate is the information they are basing their perceptions/attitudes on that ultimately frame legal responses to these juveniles? We propose here that the larger societal understanding of and reaction to youth who have committed a sexual offense has been disproportionately severe in comparison to the risk posed by these youth and what we understand about youth development and resiliency.
Our findings from a pilot study exploring public perceptions of these youth suggest practice and policy reform efforts should continue to incorporate a substantial public education and prevention component.