The Biasing Effect of the 'Sexually Violent Predator' Label on Legal Decisions
24 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2016
Date Written: March 25, 2016
Public fear has driven legislation designed to identify and exclude sexual offenders from society, culminating in sexually violent predator (SVP) statutes, in which a sex offender who has served his prison sentence is hospitalized indefinitely if a jury determines he is likely to reoffend as a result of a mental disorder. Jurors rarely vote not to commit a previously-convicted sex offender as an SVP. This study tests whether the mere label of “sexually violent predator” affects these legal decisions. Venire jurors (n=161) were asked to decide whether an individual who had been incarcerated for 16 years should be released on parole. The individual was either labeled as a.) a sexually violent predator or b.) a convicted felon, and all other information was identical between the conditions. Jurors were over twice as likely to deny parole to the SVP compared to the felon, even though they did not consider him any more dangerous or any more likely to reoffend. Demographic variables did not moderate this finding. However, jurors’ desire to ‘get revenge’ and to ‘make the offender pay’, as measured by Gerber and Jackson’s (2013) Just Deserts Scale, did significantly relate to decisions to deny parole. These findings suggest that jurors’ decisions in SVP hearings are driven by legally impermissible considerations, and that the mere label of “sexually violent predator” induces bias into the decision making process.
Keywords: sexual offenders; sexually violent predators; risk assessment; juror decision making
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