'Dangerousness' is not a term, however, that can be defined in the same manner across jurisdictions and through time. In English speaking nations, when dangerous offender laws were first passed in the early part of the twentieth century, property offences were considered to be harmful acts. Thus, property offenders were classified as dangerous and were incarcerated indeterminately along with violent dangerous offenders (Pratt, 1996). In recent decades, the concept of dangerousness has narrowed considerably to encompass an offender's potential to commit acts of violence or those of a sexual nature. While it can be said that dangerousness is the potential of an individual to cause future harm to others, how a legislative body defines 'harm' is key to the definition of dangerousness.


United States

Historically, American dangerous offender legislation (at both the federal and state levels) has focused primarily on sexual offenders. In the late 1930s, Sexual Psychopath laws were introduced in many American states that were formulated on the premise that dangerous sexual offenders were neither legally insane nor normal. Thus, these offenders did not belong in mental institutions but needed to be incarcerated for the purpose of public protection (Pratt, 1996). Early sex offender laws were based on a clinical model of assessing and dealing with dangerous offenders. According to this model, those who commit serious violent or sexual offences are presumed to suffer from an individual pathology that renders them incapable of controlling their behaviour. Treatment is critical to reduce the probability of recidivism and indeterminate confinement is the preferred means by which those offenders are incapacitated until such a time as they are found no longer to be dangerous.

American dangerous offender laws formulated within the clinical framework make some incorrect assumptions (Petrunik, 1994). For example, violent offenders are assumed to suffer from some type of mental abnormality that causes them to re-offend, with their offences getting progressively more serious. As well, the laws reflect a common misconception that most sex offenders assault victims who are strangers- in fact, most sexual assaults are perpetrated by an acquaintance, friend or family member of the victim. The influence of the clinical model is clearly demonstrated in the presumed ability to diagnose and treat sex offenders as well as accurately predict dangerousness. Despite studies in the United States that show dangerousness to be unpredictable and the fact that dangerousness has never been shown to be an identifiable personality trait (Mullen & Reinehr, 1982), clinicians still give predictions regarding individual offenders. This aspect of the clinical model becomes especially troublesome when a clinical assessment is given in capital murder trials. In such a situation, Ewing (1983) has found that jurors who were given a clinical assessment of an offender's dangerousness and subsequently decided to give a death sentence, had relied heavily upon the clinical opinion in making their decision.


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