Why Banning Sex Offenders from Halloween Might Make Kids Less Safe


"I want to do anything I can to protect the children of our city," declares Tulsa City Councilor Jeannie Cue.

She wants to do for her city what politicians have done statewide in places such as Illinois and Georgia: Ban registered sex offenders from Halloween activities such as passing out candy or even decorating their homes. Pushing a law "for the children" may be smart politics (smarter still if it's "for the children" and against "sex offenders.") But when good intentions mix with bad or non-existent risk assessment, the result may be more hazardous to children than the status quo.

Sex offender registries don't gauge threats terribly well. They mix truly frightening predators such as child molesters with registrants who make the list for minor offenses like streaking and public urination. Consider two teens engage in consensual sex. If one is over 18 years old and the other is under age 18, the adult could be forced to register forever as a sex offender. That's what happened to the anonymous male registrant profiled by Reason TV in this short documentary. He's listed in the same database as violent rapists and child molesters, even though he went on to marry his girlfriend.

Registries are supposed to protect children, but they also victimize them. A recent Human Rights Watch report profiles children as young as 10 who have been listed as sex offenders. "Youth sex offenders are stigmatized and publicly humiliated, often causing them to become depressed and even suicidal," says the report. "They may become targets of harassment and vigilante violence." In 2006, exactly that happened when 24-year-old William Elliott was gunned down by a deranged shooter who looked up offenders on Maine's registry. How had Elliott ended up on the list? When he was 19, he had a by-all-accounts consensual relationship with a girl just shy of her 16th birthday.

The horrifying specter of predators run amok on the most kid-centric night of the year takes up plenty of airtime on local news programs, but Halloween is generally no more threatening to children than any other day. A 2009 analysis published in the Journal of Research and Treatment discovered that "children are sexually abused on Halloween, just not at higher than expected rates for any other autumn day."

The threat of legal challenges has stalled passage of the Tulsa ordinance for now. The Tulsa city attorney noted the absolute lack of evidence tying Halloween to a heightened threat level, but that has not deterred Cue from pushing her ordinance (ditto for Oklahomans who seek a statewide law). When has the lack of a problem deterred politicians from seeking a politically-popular "solution"?

If the ordinance is implemented, it could only legally apply to new sex offenses, meaning it would darken the homes of recent registrants, but not ones that were on the list prior to the passage of the ordinance. So parents would be left with an ordinance that applies to new offenders but not old ones, and is based on a registry that mixes those who committed violent acts against children with those who were children when they committed comparatively innocuous acts. Concerned parents would be better off doing what they can do right now: Consulting an online sex offender registry to make sure their children's trick-or-treat routes steer clear of those who have victimized kids in the past.

In fact, parents under all circumstances would do better to prioritize threats according to the risk they pose. Often mundane threats present greater danger to children than sensationalized ones (which of course include unverified tales of poisoned Halloween candy). The 2009 analysis published in the Journal of Research and Treatment notes:

According to the Center for Disease Control, children ages 5 to 14 are four times more likely to be killed by a pedestrian/motor-vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year … Sex crimes against children by non- family members account for two out of every thousand Halloween crimes, calling into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources on that day away from more prevalent public safety concerns.

Law enforcement personnel should always be asking themselves: "What's the best use of our time?" Why send cops around town making sure that sex offender registrants are foregoing Halloween festivities, when they could spend more time tracking down kidnapped children, busting child molesters, or improving motor-vehicle safety?

Maybe it's time to fight against ordinances that crack down on sex offenders at Halloween. And if that makes you feel a little queasy, just remember: You'd actually be doing something for the children.

Watch Reason TV's latest Nanny of the Month, which features Tulsa's proposed ban along with two other equally stupid ideas: