Adolescent Sex Offender Registration Policy: Perspectives on General Deterrence Potential From Criminology and Developmental Psychology

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Abstract

Sex offender registration policies have expanded rapidly, now extending to adolescent offenders across the nation. Policies mandating registration are based, in part, on arguments that registration is needed to prevent dangerous sex offenders from committing additional offenses and that risk of registration deters would-be offenders from offending in the first place. Research suggests that registration does not serve the former specific deterrent function for adolescents, but less is known regarding the latter goal of general deterrence. The disciplines of criminology and developmental psychology both offer important theoretical perspectives, but these frameworks have yet to be applied to this unique context. Criminological theory on perceptions of sanction risk offers clear predictions about the potential for registration to serve as a deterrent for would-be adolescent sex offenders. Yet, the literature has not meaningfully acknowledged that (a) most adolescents are probably unaware of the parameters of registration (e.g., age restrictions, range of registerable offenses), and (b) even if adolescents are aware of registration risk, they are unlikely to be effectively deterred by it because of a variety of developmental vulnerabilities (e.g., psychosocial immaturity, perceived normativeness of certain nonviolent sexual offenses that can result in registration). We argue that key elements of criminological and developmental psychological theory must be integrated to gain a better understanding of whether sex offender registration policy can have a general deterrent effect for adolescents. We conclude with a call for interdisciplinary research that addresses the general deterrence gap and its role in guiding empirically driven policy reform.

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