'They're Planting Stories in the Press': The Impact of Media Distortions on Sex Offender Law and Policy
New York Law School
Michael L. Perlin
New York Law School
February 19, 2013
NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12/13 #55
NYLS Clinical Research Institute Paper No. # 33/ 2012
Individuals classified as sexual predators are the pariahs of the community. Sex offenders are arguably the most despised members of our society and therefore warrant our harshest condemnation. Twenty individual states and the federal government have enacted laws confining individuals who have been adjudicated as “sexually violent predators” to civil commitment facilities post incarceration and/or conviction. Additionally, in many jurisdictions, offenders who are returned to the community are restricted and monitored under community notification, registration and residency limitations. Targeting, punishing and ostracizing these individuals has become an obsession in society, clearly evidenced in the constant push to enact even more restrictive legislation that breaches the boundaries of constitutional protections.
The advancement of technology and mass media communication have spawned a constant influx of information about sexual predators. News headlines and Internet webpages are dedicated to reporting on and highlighting sexual crimes and their infamous perpetrators. There is little disputing that the newest surge in legal attention and efforts to contain sexual predators stems from the mass dissemination of sexual offender media stories available to the general public. Thus, we cannot discuss our national obsession with sexual offenses and offenders without considering how the role of the media has framed our conceptualizations of offenders and influenced resulting legal decisions and legislation.
The public perception of what constitutes a “sex offender” is undoubtedly linked to the media’s portrayal of these types of heinous crimes. The media’s attention to high profile, violent sexual offenses has been shown to elicit a panic and fear of rampant sexual violence within our communities. This, in turn, places extreme public pressure on legislators to enact more repressive legislation and on judges to interpret such laws in ways that insure lengthier periods of incarceration for offenders. The media’s portrayal of a “largely ineffective” criminal justice system heightens fear; fictionalized portrayals of crime on television dramas may lead viewers to believe that “all offenders are `monsters’ to be feared.” The media, in short, shapes and produces the reality of crime, as it influences “factual perceptions of the world.” A “moral panic” has developed primarily due to the media’s depiction of a “sex offender ” in the news and newspaper articles. As a result of the incessant media coverage, the general public has conceptualized what it believes to be the prototype of this “monstrous evil” – a male who violently attacks stranger young children .
This paper is not the first inquiry into the media’s influence on public perceptions and moral panic: the media’s influence on sex offender policy, legislation and public opinion has been highlighted in depth throughout much of the literature and academic writings. The other discussions have generally focused on the media’s role as a precursor to the enactment of sex offender legislation, the upholding of sex offender laws in the courts, and as a significant influence on the continuation of moral panic. But what has not been looked at significantly, is whether and how the media coverage and presentation of these issues has been transformed over the past two decades, and what effect, if any, this has had on public perception. What if the media has begun to shift away from simply highlighting and describing the feared beast and has begun to focus more on the problematic results of laws and legislation? Would that, in turn, have an effect on public perceptions and inevitably on the formation and enactment of laws and judicial decisions?
Slowly and somewhat recently, it appears that the tone of the media’s portrayal of sex offender issues has begun to shift. In addition to highlighting salient and horrific sexually violent offenses and contributing to community outrage, the mainstream media has increasingly begun to report on significant concerns surrounding the conceptualization, treatment and containment of the sex offender population. News articles – published in popular newspapers and media sites – more readily dedicate information to expressing expert opinions (that were previously embedded in articles dedicated solely to describing heinous crimes and community outrage), reporting on statistics that question the factual basis of our perceptions, questioning the efficacy of the laws designed to protect the community, and touching on the cost of human rights violations resulting from our laws.
This article will consider the role of the media in sex offender issues and further theorize whether the shift in media presentation has affected public perceptions of sex offenders and whether it has had any impact on recent legislation and the future enactment of sex offender laws. As part of this inquiry, we will employ the lens of therapeutic jurisprudence in an effort to assess the broader societal impact of these media depictions.
Part I will offer an overview of the major (media-centered) sex offender laws and legislation, focusing on the media accounts of the crimes upon which they were based. Part II will consider the impact of the media’s portrayal of offenders as the pariahs of society in the civil and criminal justice system; Part III will detail the proposed recent shift in media presentation and consider how, if at all, this shift has made an impact on new laws, legislation and court opinions. Part IV weighs these developments in the context of therapeutic jurisprudence, and considers its potential impact on dealing with the aftermath of the first decades of the media’s volatile influence on this area of law and policy. We conclude by offering several policy recommendations.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 112
Keywords: Sex offender law, therapeutic jurisprudence, institutionalization, recidivism, criminal procedure, media impact, judicial decision-making
Date posted: February 21, 2013