Awareness of Sex Offender Registration Policies and Self-Reported Sexual Offending in a Community Sample of Adolescents

  • Hayley M. D. ClearyEmail author
  • Cynthia J. Najdowski


Sex offender registration laws are widely implemented, increasingly restrictive, and intended to serve both specific and general deterrent functions. Most states have some form of policy mechanism to place adolescents on sex offender registries, yet it remains unclear whether adolescents possess the requisite policy awareness to be deterred from sexual offending. This study examined awareness of sex offender registration as a potential sanction and its cross-sectional association with engagement in several registrable sexual behaviors (sexting, indecent exposure, sexual solicitation, and forcible touching) in a community sample of 144 adolescents. Results revealed that many adolescents were unaware that these behaviors could result in sex offender registration. Moreover, over one-third of adolescents who incorrectly believed that youth cannot be registered were highly confident in their answers. Notably, nearly half the sample had engaged in at least one of the four registrable behaviors we assessed, and policy-aware youth were just as likely as others to have engaged in those registrable sexual behaviors. Our findings cast doubt on arguments that juvenile sex offender registration serves as a general deterrent, adding to a growing body of literature suggesting that the policy is ineffective and in need of reform.


Juveniles Sex offender registration Adolescent sexual offending General deterrence Public policy 



The authors gratefully acknowledge Katherine Poindexter for legal assistance, Steven Keener for research assistance, and Research Unlimited for recruitment assistance.

Funding Information

This project was supported by funding from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Presidential Research Quest Fund for the first author and funding from the University at Albany’s Michael J. Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center for the second author.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

All study materials and procedures were approved by the first author’s university institutional review board.


These funding organizations had no role in study design, collection, analysis, interpretation, or publication of findings.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminal Justice, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public AffairsVirginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity at Albany, State University of New YorkAlbanyUSA

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