Registering Dangerous Strangers: Psychology and Justice in the Politics of the Sex Offender Registry

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Virginia Tech


My dissertation addresses the phenomenon of stranger danger to children and tries to answer the question of how the category of sex offender has been produced to become the primary target in contemporary sex crime control. I examine the period from the 1960s through the 1990s, the period beginning with the rising awareness of child abuse and criminal and psychiatric patient rights challenges to preventive confinement and ending with institutionalizing the regime of sex offender risk management. I attend particularly to psychological techniques that were designed and used to produce sex offender categories, by focusing on three interconnected dimensions: first, the formation of a new discipline of forensic psychology in the crime control area; second, the methods of knowledge production about sex offenders; and third, the institutional aspects of crime control centered on repeat stranger offenders.

This dissertation examines the shaping of risk as a value-laden cultural product, involving the identification of risks to be managed, the selection of risk factors, and the decisions of "acceptable" levels of risk. In engaging in conversation about ongoing policy issues, my work intends to go beyond the opposition between civil rights and public safety to understand how the politics of crime control came to center on the dangerous stranger, a center around which the two political values of rights and safety have collided and been negotiated. I provide a genealogy of actuarial risk management and situate its origins in relation to the civil rights revolution. By examining the shift from psychiatric dangerousness prediction to psychological risk management, I argue that the risk management regime is an outgrowth of psychologists' attempts to accommodate civil rights claims in a broader context where socio-cultural tensions over the changing family values have zeroed in on stranger danger.

While psychologists initially promoted actuarial justice as a rational method of balancing conflicting social values, its implementation was dictated by institutional demands for efficiency in regulating an increasing number of sex offenders. Risk management technologies led to the mutual reproduction of crime data and criminal populations at risk of reoffense, which contributed to the expansion of populations under criminal supervision.



civil rights, dangerousness prediction, psychology, risk management, sex offender, stranger danger