How Background Relates to Perceptions of Child Sexual Abuse Prevention and Policies Related to Individuals Convicted of Sex Crimes

Date01 August 2020
Published date01 August 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(7) 1059 –1094
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403419873126
How Background Relates
to Perceptions of Child
Sexual Abuse Prevention and
Policies Related to Individuals
Convicted of Sex Crimes
Kelly M. Socia1, Melissa D. Grady2, Tess Bolder3,
Kelli Cronin4, Christi Hurt5, and Sarah Vidrine6
Although research has examined perceptions of child sexual abuse (CSA) prevention
and the efficacy of sex offender policies (SOPs), less research compares these
perceptions between different backgrounds. We explore these perceptions among
North Carolina stakeholders with backgrounds related to (a) victims of CSA,
(b) individuals convicted of sex crimes (ICSCs), and/or (c) law enforcement and
policymakers. Specifically, we examine how these backgrounds differ in the perceived
efficacy of (a) the ability to prevent CSA, (b) containment-based SOPs, and (c)
assistance-based SOPs. We find that the victim-focused background was the most
optimistic that CSA prevention is possible, and the law and policy background was
the most pessimistic. Furthermore, the ICSC-focused background was the least likely
to believe in the effectiveness of containment-based strategies and the most likely to
believe in the effectiveness of assistance-based strategies. An overlapping victim-and-
ICSC background consistently fell in between the views of victim-only and ICSC-only
1University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA
2The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, USA
3Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, Washington, DC, USA
4Private Practice, Silver Springs, MD, USA
5The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
6NC Child, Raleigh, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kelly M. Socia, School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell, HSSB, 4th
floor, 113 Wilder Ave, Lowell, MA 01854, USA.
873126CJPXXX10.1177/0887403419873126Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSocia et al.
1060 Criminal Justice Policy Review 31(7)
sex offenders, community perceptions, sex offender policy, child sexual abuse
Many of the most prominent laws and policies designed to reduce child sexual abuse
(CSA) were launched and passed as a result of individual citizens’ actions and efforts
(Finkelhor, Turner, Ormrod, Hamby, & Kracke, 2009; La Fond, 2005). Typically, these
laws and policies are passed in response to a heinous crime involving a child victim,
for whom they are eventually named (e.g., Megan’s Law), and they demonstrate the
role that citizens have in shaping and ultimately passing significant legislation.
Because of the nature of the crimes, they are often passed based on public outrage sur-
rounding the crime itself, rather than on evidence and facts, a practice often resulting
in laws that create more harm than good (Tofte & Fellner, 2007).
As outcry from the general public has often fueled the passage of these various laws
and policies, it is not surprising that much research has focused on the views of the
general public surrounding these issues (e.g., Budd & Mancini, 2015; Harris & Socia,
2016; Mancini & Budd, 2016; Pickett, Mancini, & Mears, 2013). Relatively less
research has examined the perceptions of individuals with more relevant backgrounds,
such as those relating to CSA victimization, CSA perpetration, or law enforcement and
policymaking. Even less research has directly compared the perceptions of different
backgrounds (see Levenson, Fortney, & Baker, 2010; Powell, 2010; Redlich, 2001).
Indeed, such comparisons are typically limited to reviews of existing research (see
Harper & Hogue, 2015; Harper, Hogue, & Bartels, 2017; Powell, 2010; Willis,
Levenson, & Ward, 2010).
Instead, most of the research in this area focuses on demographic comparisons
(e.g., gender or racial differences) within an individual background (e.g., therapists,
criminal justice professionals), rather than comparisons between different back-
grounds. Although demographic characteristics are important to consider, individuals’
professional and personal background experiences may also play an important role in
perceptions about CSA, its perpetrators, and the laws and policies that apply to them.
For instance, perceptions on whether CSA can be prevented may differ between indi-
viduals with backgrounds related to CSA victims, perpetrators, and/or law enforce-
ment and policymaking. Yet, it is largely unknown whether this is true.
This study addresses this gap by examining the extent to which an individual’s
relevant background predicts their perceptions of CSA prevention and the efficacy of
“sex offender policies” (SOPs). This study conceptualizes relevant backgrounds as the
personal or professional identities of an individual that relate to experiences with CSA
crimes, its victims, its perpetrators, or the passage or enforcement of related policies.
Examining how perceptions of CSA and SOPs differ across relevant backgrounds will
provide more nuance to the existing body of research. This increased understanding
may also aid policymakers seeking to understand and address the concerns of various
stakeholder groups as they work to craft SOPs that are both effective and generate
broad support.
Socia et al. 1061
SOPs: Containment Versus Assistance
Although the registry is possibly the most well-known SOP relating to those individu-
als convicted of sex crimes (ICSCs), there is a broad array of postrelease ICSC poli-
cies being used throughout the United States (for reviews, see Socia & Maroun, 2016;
Socia & Rydberg, 2016). Such policies generally fall into one of two categories, based
on their ultimate goal of either the containment of ICSCs or providing assistance to
Containment-based policies focus on controlling ICSCs in the community through
various requirements and restrictions, such as registration, notification, electronic
monitoring, and residence restrictions. These types of policies are generally based on
an underlying fear of crime (King, 2019; Nhan, Polzer, & Ferguson, 2012; Pickett
et al., 2013), and as such, their ultimate goal is to protect the public (and especially
children) from ICSC recidivism. Although presented as civil and nonpunitive by poli-
cymakers (Shajnfeld & Krueger, 2006), the punitive effects of containment-based
SOPs have resulted in a variety of legal challenges (e.g., Doe v. Miller, 2005; Does,
et al. v. Snyder, et al., 2016; Smith v. Doe, 2003).
Conversely, assistance-based policies seek to provide ICSCs with treatment and
other tangible support during the reentry process. Such policies include providing
treatment opportunities, support groups, and other mental health counseling to ICSCs,
or assisting ICSCs with finding stable employment or housing options. Assistance-
based SOPs are not directly focused on protecting the public through strict control and
monitoring, but rather on increasing the chances of successful reentry and reintegra-
tion of ICSCs through beneficial support and assistance. Through successful integra-
tion, these policies espouse that the ICSCs’ risk of recidivism will decrease as their
protective factors increase (Ward & Stewart, 2003).
The Inextricable Link to CSA Victimization
Much of the public discussion surrounding ICSCs and the policies applying to this
group has focused on CSA, rather than more general sex crimes. For example, many of
the policies have been named after specific child victims (e.g., Jacob Wetterling, Megan
Kanka, Jessica Lunsford), and/or specifically focused on protecting just children from
sexual victimization (e.g., residence restrictions). Indeed, the protection of children
from sexual victimization has been the driving factor behind most of the existing SOPs
(e.g., Levenson & D’Amora, 2007; Meloy, Boatwright, & Curtis, 2013; Meloy, Curtis,
& Boatwright, 2013; Sample & Kadleck, 2008). Furthermore, there is widespread pub-
lic belief that the majority of the individuals on the public registry are pedophiles and/
or are at a high risk of committing new sex crimes against child victims (Socia &
Harris, 2016). As such, the existing research has frequently involved, either explicitly
or implicitly, perceptions about the prevention (and punishment) of sex crimes as it
relates to child victims. Given this inextricable link between public perceptions of sex
crimes, child victims, and SOPs, the present study focuses on perceptions as they relate
to the prevention of CSA and the efficacy of SOPs that apply to perpetrators of CSA.

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