Dr. Andrew HarrisAndrew Harris, PhD recently presented at our 2015 symposium, Child Sexual Abuse: A Public Health Perspective. He defined the polarization in sexual offender policy by the way each side perceives the other. Proponents on one side see the other as reactive, punitive, resistant to evidence, and inclined toward kneejerk reactions. On the other side, advocates see researchers as soft on offenders and detached from reality. While one side may be convinced that legislators aren’t very sensitive to the evidence on effective prevention and treatment, the other would claim that research is out of touch with the pragmatic reality that law enforcement and other practitioners see on a day-to-day basis.

The challenge, Harris said, is to move beyond a bilateral framework, in which the response to child sexual abuse is based either on criminal justice or public health and human services. When the options are set that starkly, policy and program decisions become an arbitrary choice between:

  • Criminal justice policies driven mostly by top-down statutes, grounded in law enforcement, courts, correctional institutions, and probation and parole agencies, and attentive to prevention primarily as a tertiary activity
  • Public health and human service policies driven mostly by ground-up practice and programs, grounded in health agencies, school systems, youth-serving organizations, community and religious institutions, and families, and more comprehensive in their approach to primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention.

Justice-based policy responses to sexual violence fall into two streams—investigation, enforcement, and interdiction, and perpetrator sentencing and management—with the first one tracing its roots back to the Mann Act of 1910. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation was formed that year,” Harris said, “and until Prohibition, its main mandate was to enforce the laws against white slavery.” That role has continued to evolve, with the adoption and subsequent amendment of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and, over the last few years, the rapid expansion of state laws against human trafficking.

The federal effort to disrupt child pornography and, later, Internet-based exploitation began with the 1977 Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation Act and culminated in the 2008 PROTECT ACT and KIDS ACT. On a parallel track, state sentencing and management initiatives date back to sexual psychopath laws and first-generation sex offender registries in the 1930s and 1940s, followed more recently by civil commitment, sentencing reform, and community notification laws beginning in 1990.

Increasingly, Harris said state civil commitment strategies “basically mean wrapping people up and incarcerating them so they can’t harm anyone. By 2014, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 sexual offenders in 21 states had been committed under mental hygiene laws, with post-release confinement based on their assessed levels of mental abnormality and the threat they posed to the community. After 25 years of program experience, the principal problem is that it’s “very easy to get people in. It’s not very easy to let them out,” Harris said. That means the state pays $100,000 per person, per year for civil commitment, compared to $20,000 for mental health treatment.

Many states have also opted for longer, tougher mandatory sentences, with more limited discretion in sentencing and less allowance for parole or “good time” credits. Between 1993 and 2009, according to National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) data, median months served before first prison release increased 70 percent for offenders convicted of rape and 52 percent for perpetrators of other forms of sexual assault, compared to 33 percent for all offenses and 26 percent for all violent offenses.

“The net result is that sexual offenders grew 50 percent as a percentage of state prison populations over two decades, from 8.2 percent in 1991 to 12.4 percent in 2011,” Harris said. Sexual offenders under institutional or formal community supervision included 161,000 state prisoners, 13,500 federal inmates, 3,000 to 4,000 under civil commitment, and 202,000 under parole or probation supervision.

In the community, lifetime supervision with electronic monitoring has been mandated for a subset of high-risk offenders, but law enforcement is following a whole other, larger group to enforce statutory restrictions on residence, employment, loitering, and use of the Internet and social media. “There’s really no other categorical group of offenders” to which such restrictions apply after they’ve served their terms in prison, he noted, and the monitoring provisions lead to mission creep between parole agencies and law enforcement.

Harris reviewed the trends in offender registration and community notification laws in 1990, noting that all 50 states had systems in place by the end of that decade. The federal role expanded between 1994 and 2006, and states passed 312 pieces of legislation between 2008 and 2013 that were in some way related to offender registries.

The jury is still out on whether these initiatives are effective, but the direction of public policy is set in part by the proportion of Americans who believe sex crimes have become more frequent, less frequent, or stayed the same in the last 20 years: Incidence has actually declined, but only 6 percent of survey respondents answer the question correctly.

“Opportunity begins with talking about it,” Harris said, and high-profile cases like the arrest and trial of ex-football coach Jerry Sandusky have “made people take a much broader, more grounded view of this issue.” Ultimately, children’s safety and well-being will be protected by an integrated approach that combines offender sentencing and management, investigation and enforcement, early intervention, community dialogue, strengthening families, and victim support. Watch Dr. Harris' presentation here. To read more presentation recaps, click here.

Andrew Harris, PhD, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs, College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Massachusetts Lowell