In the United States, it has probably never been safer to be a kid. There's no lead paint on the wall, fun metal slides have been replaced by scratched plastic crap that even wax paper can't get up to dangerous speed, and crimes against children have plummeted.
So why is Los Angeles County fretting over an infestation of pervy, Aqualung-ish ice cream vendors?
Yesterday, the Board of Supervisors approved a motion pushing for background checks on business license "applicants whose businesses regularly interact with children." The motion specifically singles out peddlers of creamsicles and other cold, sweet treats as nefarious threats to the innocent youth. That, despite a lack of evidence that innocent youths face much of a threat at all—and the dangers posed by background checks themselves.
The motion by Supervisor Don Knabe (PDF) reads, in part:
We should carefully scrutinize the background of any individual who engages in a child-oriented business to see if he or she has been convicted of crimes against children such as molestation, pornography, abuse, or is a registered sex offender.
Ice cream truck vendors are a prime example of someone that operates a business that caters to children as their primary clientele, or at the very least provides them with direct access to children who may not be in the company of an adult.
The dread scourge of ice cream vendors?
Knabe proposes that shifty-eyed would-be retailers of frozen confections be run through Live Scan—electronic fingerprinting—and checked against police and FBI criminal records.
So what's the harm if it will save just one child from some would-be Mister Pervee?
Well…Criminal background checks aren't perfect tools. Really, they're as fallible as any database, especially those run by government employees. Last year, the National Employment Law Project noted (PDF) that the FBI isn't so diligent about keeping its records current; about half of records are missing final disposition information. That means they reflect an arrest, but not whether a conviction resulted. As a result of such flaws, "more than 600,000 workers a year were potentially prejudiced in a job search as a result of the FBI's failure to report accurate and complete information."
So, if LA County starts running background checks on everybody who gets near a kid, there's a good chance that more than a few of them will be denied an opportunity to make a living for no good reason. They'll also be tainted as dangers to children.
All this, even as the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that "the overall rate of serious violent crime against youth ages 12 to 17 declined 77 percent from 1994 to 2010." If you share Supervisor Knabe's specific concerns about sex offenders, it's worth knowing that "the rate of rape and sexual assault declined 68 percent."
Fortunately, Knabe and company made the usual political move by publicly announcing their concerns, and then skating the proposal off for review by the Treasurer, Tax Collector, and County Counsel.
Maybe it'll stay frozen in bureaucratic limbo.