Perpetual Panic

10 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2009

Date Written: March 11, 2009


Sex crimes continue to be a matter of intense legislative interest at both state and federal levels of government, as evidenced by a flurry of recent enactments expanding sex offender registration requirements, prohibiting sex offenders from participating in "Halloween-related" activities, and facilitating the exclusion of sex offenders from social networking websites. Although legislative activity in the area of sex crimes has gone through regular phases of high and low intensity across the past century, the current high-intensity phase, dating from the 1980s, has lasted an unusually long time. Moreover, this high-intensity period displays the characteristics of what historians and sociologists have termed a "moral panic," marked particularly by the rapid adoption of many new laws that seem poorly designed to achieve their community-protection aims. This Essay, which introduces a forthcoming issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter devoted to recent developments in the punishment and management of sex offenders (Vol. 21, Issue 2), offers a critical overview of the new laws and considers why the sex crimes panic has proven so much more durable than the crack cocaine panic, which also arose in the 1980s.

Keywords: sex crimes, sentencing, sex offender, moral panic

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

O'Hear, Michael M., Perpetual Panic (March 11, 2009). Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2008; Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 09-09. Available at SSRN:

Michael M. O'Hear (Contact Author)

Marquette University - Law School ( email )

Sensenbrenner Hall
P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201
United States
414-288-3587 (Phone)
414-288-5914 (Fax)

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