An Examination of Multiple Factors Influencing Support for Sex Offender Policy

Published date01 July 2019
Date01 July 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2019, Vol. 30(6) 925 –947
© The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403417715684
An Examination of Multiple
Factors Influencing Support
for Sex Offender Policy
Sarah M. Manchak1 and Leah R. Fisher2
The general public has an influence on the creation and implementation of criminal
justice policy. There is strong public support for policies targeting sex offenders, in
particular, despite research evidence demonstrating their ineffectiveness. Any change
in current policy will require a change in public perceptions. As such, it is important
to identify the factors that influence one’s support for current sex offender policies.
Using a student sample, this exploratory pilot study employed a survey with an
experimental vignette component to examine the influence of personal demographic
characteristics, knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about sex offenders, and offense
characteristics on support for three current sex offender policies. Results from
the multivariate analyses suggest that support for sex offender policy is complex
and influenced by a number of factors. Greater support for sex offender policy was
associated with more social distancing, higher perceptions of sex offender riskiness,
offender criminal history, and younger victim age.
sex offender policy, community notification, sex offender registry, residency
Public policy is often and strongly influenced by public opinion (Burstein, 2003).
Although a number of factors influence criminal justice policy, the particular impor-
tance of public opinion in this realm cannot be ignored. In fact, legislators often will
survey the public about their perceptions of crime and criminal justice initiatives to
1University of Cincinnati, OH, USA
2Washington State Statistical Analysis Center, Olympia, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sarah M. Manchak, School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, 660 Dyer Hall, P.O. Box 210389,
Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA.
715684CJPXXX10.1177/0887403417715684Criminal Justice Policy ReviewManchak and Fisher
926 Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(6)
inform their law-making efforts (Baldassare, Bonner, Petek, & Shrestha, 2014;
Roberts, 1992; Wiggington, 2013). In addition, everyday citizens have the ability to
influence implementation of current criminal justice policy while fulfilling their civic
duties serving on a jury or voting. The public can also influence the creation of new
criminal justice policy through formal petitions, lobbying, and involvement with polit-
ical interest groups, and through the dissemination of research. One area of criminal
justice policy where public influence may be particularly salient is with respect to laws
targeting sex offenders living in the community. Over the last several decades, “public
opinion and policy changes nationwide have shifted to take sexual offending in gen-
eral more seriously” (Leon, 2011).
Factors Influencing the Development and Adoption of
Current Sex Offender Policies
There are likely several historical, theoretical, and social-psychological factors that
together influenced the development of current sex offender policy. Historically and
culturally, anything of a sexual nature has often been considered taboo (Quinn, Forsyth,
& Mullen-Quinn, 2004), and these attitudes among the general public may facilitate
heightened sensitivity to—and vigilance against—sex offenses. In addition, wide-
spread media coverage of such sensationalized crimes as the abduction and murder of
Jacob Wetterling and the murder of Megan Kanka in 1989 and 1994, respectively,
have helped fuel increased public outrage about sex offenders, particularly those who
offend against children (see Kernsmith, Craun, & Foster, 2009). Perhaps more than
any other offender type, sex offenders are viewed and treated with disdain and disgust,
as evidenced by terms often used to reference them: “monsters,” “deviants,” “psycho-
paths,” and “predators” (see Leon, 2011; Quinn et al., 2004).
Perhaps because sex offenses elicit such fearful and visceral responses from the
public, policy targeting this group has been surprisingly punitive in nature (e.g.,
emphasis is on added surveillance and restriction), despite public support for rehabili-
tation more generally (Baker, Metcalfe, Berenblum, Aviv, & Gertz, 2015; Cullen &
Gendreau, 2000; Cullen, Pealer, Fisher, Applegate, & Santana, 2002). Moreover, the
creation of policies such as community notification, national registries, residency
restrictions, electronic monitoring, and civil commitment have, in some ways, further
stigmatized sex offenders (Schultz, 2014), fueling increased fear of sex offenders and
strengthening support for policies that seek to monitor and control this offender sub-
population. Indeed, the “tendency to view the sex offender as a monster and scapegoat
[is] at the intersection of public fears and reactionary policy” (Leon, 2011, p. 7).
Concerns About Existing Sex Offender Policy
Despite their good intentions to enhance public safety, current punitive-oriented poli-
cies targeting sex offenders have been shown to yield null effects on sex offender
recidivism. For instance, one study used a longitudinal matched design to compare

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