Public Safety, Individual Liberty, and Suspect Science: Future Dangerousness Assessments and Sex Offender Laws

56 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2010 Last revised: 4 Sep 2011

Melissa Hamilton

University of Houston Law Center

Date Written: 2011

Abstract

This article argues that the new preventive law focus in sex offender laws is largely ineffective and too costly to personal liberty. The application of sex offender laws involving civil commitment, sex offender registration, and residency restrictions is often based on an individualized analysis of future dangerousness, i.e., the risk the defendant will sexually recidivate. In assessing future dangerousness, experts and courts place heavy emphasis on the use of actuarial tools, basically checklists that mental health experts use to derive statistical estimates of risk. This article provides substantiation that actuarial tools, while enjoying the imprimatur of science, suffer from significant empirical faults. Yet courts are largely abandoning their gatekeeping roles in accepting the experts’ testimony using actuarial tool predictions of risk without critical review as required by the Daubert and Frye evidentiary standards. The paper theorizes that this is likely a pragmatic strategy considering the current political and public thirst for retribution against sexual predators. But, use of this empirically-challenged science exacerbates the practice of applying sex offender restrictions to inappropriately labeled individuals. Finally, this article takes advantage of the interdisciplinary trend of engaging social science with the law on expert evidence. More specifically, it offers an empirical assessment of future dangerousness opinions within the Daubert/Frye scientific evidence frameworks. The significance of the conclusion reached in this article is clear: if the law continues to rely upon suspect science that results in the wrong individuals being subject to liberty-infringing sex offender laws, then the drain on criminal justice resources will leave the truly dangerous offenders without sufficient supervision at the risk of public safety.

Keywords: sex offender, expert evidence, law and society

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Hamilton, Melissa, Public Safety, Individual Liberty, and Suspect Science: Future Dangerousness Assessments and Sex Offender Laws (2011). Temple Law Review, Vol. 82, 2011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1580016

Melissa Hamilton (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

100 Law Center
Houston, TX 77204-6054
United States

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