Variations in State Sex Offender Statutes: Implications for U.S. Higher Education

AuthorBradley D. Custer
Published date01 July 2019
Date01 July 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2019, Vol. 30(6) 906 –924
© The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403417722388
Variations in State
Sex Offender Statutes:
Implications for U.S.
Higher Education
Bradley D. Custer1
State sex offender statutes have been shown to vary widely in the United States.
The rules found in some state statutes targeting registered sex offenders who are
students or employees at higher education institutions have never been studied. I
analyzed sex offender statutes and public sex offender registry websites from all U.S.
states and territories and found 10 unique rules across 20 states for sex offenders in
higher education. In addition, the websites of 31 states and territories listed the name
or address of the institution where a registrant attends or works, and nine websites
allow users to search for registrants by institution. Although research suggests higher
education may be an effective rehabilitation strategy for sex offenders, some of these
policies may be barriers to pursuing a college degree. I offer recommendations for
reducing barriers to higher education through policymaking and for conducting future
policy evaluations.
sex offender laws, higher education, policy variation, crime policy, college students
Research has shown that sex offender statutes and registry websites vary widely
between states (Brewster, DeLong, & Moloney, 2012; Lytle, 2015; Mancini, Barnes,
& Mears, 2011). Some state statutes contain special rules for registered sex offenders
(RSOs) enrolled or employed at higher education institutions, and some websites dis-
play the college name or address where a registrant is a student or employee. These
1Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Bradley D. Custer, Michigan State University, Bessey Hall Room 192, 434 Farm Lane, East Lansing,
MI 48824, USA.
722388CJPXXX10.1177/0887403417722388Criminal Justice Policy ReviewCuster
Custer 907
rules, and their variations, are problematic in that they inhibit access to people who
could benefit from the rehabilitative effects of higher education, including reduced
recidivism and improved employability (Davis et al., 2014). In addition, members of
the campus community and college administrators may face unintended consequences
of the varying policies, such as misperceptions of safety and issues of policy enforce-
ment. No research has been conducted to examine how many states have higher educa-
tion rules for sex offenders, what those rules require, or the extent of variation in those
rules across states. In this study, I analyzed state sex offender statutes and registry
websites for content related to higher education to advance the scholarship on sex
offender policy variation and to raise awareness about an understudied issue of access
in higher education.
To begin, I review three selected studies that address variation in sex offender stat-
utes, followed by a brief review of the effectiveness of prison higher education. Next,
I identify how sex offender statutes implicate U.S. higher education and how varia-
tions in these laws are problematic. Then, the purpose, design, and methods for this
original study are presented, followed by findings. In the “Discussion” section, I con-
sider the consequences of these policies for RSO college students, and finally, I pro-
pose an agenda for policy evaluation and recommendations for reducing the
stigmatizing effects of sex offender laws on students.
Literature Review
In this section, I review the research literature on variation in sex offender policies.
The three studies selected address variation in sex offender statutes in all 50 states, sex
offender registry websites, and registration and community notification laws in a sam-
ple of five states. Then, I review the most up-to-date literature evaluating prison higher
education programs.
Variation in Sex Offender Laws
Federal laws provide states the framework for sex offender registration. In short, the
Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (also known as Sex Offender
Registration and Notification Act) required all jurisdictions to adopt unified standards
for the management of sex offenders (Terry & Ackerman, 2015). As such, all jurisdic-
tions are supposed to have sex offender registration and notification laws with com-
mon core features. Even so, researchers have found considerable variation in laws and
registry websites (Brewster et al., 2012; Lytle, 2015; Mancini et al., 2011).
Mancini et al. (2011) compiled statutes from all 50 states to examine the extent of
variation in seven policies: sex offender registries, community notification, residence
restrictions, civil commitment, lifetime supervision, driver’s license notation, and
chemical castration. They counted where these policies existed state-by-state and then
examined variation within policy areas. Overall, they found no variability in the enact-
ment of sex offender registries and community notification (because of federal laws)
but found considerable policy variation in five other areas: 33 states had residence

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