Public Opinions on Applying Adult Sex Offender Legislation to Minors Convicted of Sex Crimes

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(3) 235 –255
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211046327
Public Opinions on Applying
Adult Sex Offender
Legislation to Minors
Convicted of Sex Crimes
Calli M. Cain1 and Lisa L. Sample2
A controversial part of the Adam Walsh Act (AWA) mandates that states require
minors adjudicated of certain sexual offenses to be on the sex offender registry,
but not all states have complied. Our article examines how far the public in one
Midwestern state that has not complied with the AWA is willing to go to manage
juvenile sex offenders. We use a statewide survey of adults to examine attitudes
toward applying adult sex offender penalties to minors adjudicated of a sex crime
(residency restrictions, prohibitions from public schools, school zones, public parks,
and social networking sites). Results indicate more than half (60%) of participants
agreed that juveniles should be on the public sex offender registry. However, there
was less consensus on how punitively juveniles should be treated compared with
adult sex offenders. Results indicated which demographics in this state were more
likely to hold punitive views toward juvenile sex offenders.
juvenile sex offenders, sex offender notification, public opinion, punishment,
community perceptions
A growing body of literature has investigated public opinion on applying adult sex
offender laws, particularly sex offender registration and notification (SORN), to
minors adjudicated of crimes of a sexual nature (Campregher & Jeglic, 2016; Harris &
1Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL, USA
2University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA
Corresponding Author:
Calli M. Cain, School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Road,
SO Room 211, Boca Raton, FL 33431, USA.
1046327CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211046327Criminal Justice Policy ReviewCain and Sample
236 Criminal Justice Policy Review 33(3)
Socia, 2014; Salerno et al., 2010; Stevenson et al., 2013). Most studies find that the
public supports placing juvenile sex offenders (JSOs) on adult sex offender registries
but releasing this information to the public is mixed. For instance, in a national sample
of community members, Harris and Socia (2014) found slightly more than half of
participants (53.6%) agreed or strongly agreed that JSOs should be placed on public
sex offense registries. Conversely, Salerno and colleagues (2014) found support for
juveniles on sex offender registries is ambiguous, depending on sampling frame and
how survey questions are asked. Most recently, Budd and Johnston (2021) found peo-
ple were more likely to support public notification of juvenile females (14 years old)
if they thought law enforcement was effective in their investigations of the alleged sex
crime and when they had greater concern for public safety. However, SORN policies
are not the only laws applied to adult sex offenders.
In many states, registration and notification is accompanied by laws prohibiting
convicted sex offenders from living in or near school zones, and from being on school
property (Sample, 2011). Adults convicted of sex offenses are often prohibited from
dwelling in public parks and are often banned from social networking sites (Wynton,
2011). Despite punitive attitudes toward sex offenders of any age (Mancini, 2014), this
study examines if the public is ready to apply several adult sex offender policies to
youth adjudicated for sexual crimes in one Midwestern state. The importance of
answering this question in this state is that it has yet to comply with JSO registration
and other adult-type restrictions for minors adjudicated on sex crimes. We believe the
answer for why this state continues to be reticent to treat adjudicated juveniles as adult
sex offenders lies in public opinion and its effect on law making.
The purpose and our broad research question for this article is how far the public is
willing to go to manage minors adjudicated for sex crimes in the community. We ask
citizens in one Midwestern state if minors adjudicated for crimes of a sexual nature
should be treated the same as adult sex offenders. Moving beyond simply asking the
public about the application of SORN laws to minors, we asked if other adult sex
offender laws should be applied to juveniles adjudicated of a sex crime, such as prohi-
bitions from public schools, school zones, public parks, and social networking sites—
all regulations that currently apply to convicted adult sex offenders. These questions
are founded on the theoretical notions of Rietbergen-McCracken (2017) and participa-
tory policymaking.
There is considerable variability across states regarding the registration and community
notification of JSOs (Harris & Lobanov-Rostovsky, 2010; Office of Sex Offender
Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking [SMART], 2019).
Some states have included minors adjudicated for sex crimes on adult sex offender reg-
istry websites, whereas others have created juvenile-specific registries only accessible to
criminal justice professionals and educators. Still other states have refused to register
convicted sex offenders who are below the age of 18 years unless they were tried as
adults. This variability across states concerning juvenile registration was so stark,

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