Crime and Panic: Contextual Factors in Violent and Sex Offender Sentencing

Date of Award

Winter 2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Sociology & Criminal Justice


Criminology and Criminal Justice

Committee Director

Randy Gainey

Committee Member

Ruth Triplett

Committee Member

Rod Engen


Although crime rates have been decreasing nationwide, the public is still very concerned with crime as a social problem and generally supportive of criminal justice penalties for wrongdoing. The mass of punitive laws have been especially harsh on those convicted of sexual offenses, even as these offenders comprise a small part of the entire crime picture. The passage of mandatory minimum sentences and risk management laws for sex offenders suggest a moral panic over sexual offending. It may be that this moral panic influences sex offender sentencing such that these defendants are sentenced more harshly in courts than are other violent offenders. Through the lens of urban sentencing, this paper investigates if there is a moral panic about sexual offenses. Specifically, the effects of county level influences on violent offender sentencing outcomes are tested for 71 urban counties using hierarchical linear modeling. Results indicate that in places with larger percentages of Hispanics, higher rates of violent crime, in Southern states, and those with sentencing guidelines violent offenders are punished less severely. Comparing rapists to other violent offenders, it was found that in counties with higher percentages of Republican voters, the odds of receiving a prison sentence for rape is increased compared to a conviction for murder. The current study did not find overall support that sex offenders are disproportionately affected at sentencing. Yet, it is noted that the passage of symbolic legislation in the name of child victims of sexual offenders perpetuates myths of sex offending with dangerous consequences for society as a whole. In addition, the classification of sex offenders as folk devils in need of punitive treatment is concerning for the criminal justice system in terms of cost.


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