Are Sex Offenders Unfairly Persecuted on Halloween?

In many states, registered sex offenders are forced to stay indoors from sundown on and can't answer the door, measures that activists say are over-the-top and don't make kids safer.

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Oct 30 2014, 2:30pm

Names in this article have been changed.

On Halloween night, Andrew will celebrate the holiday the way most married fathers do: He and his wife will go trick-or-treating with their two kids, who are nine and 12; maybe afterward, they'll head to their church to finish off the night with games and snacks.

But Andrew's family isn't like other families, because Andrew is a registered sex offender.

Sex offenders are the closest thing we have to real-life monsters on Halloween—and surely, few things can horrify a parent like the thought of his or her child being snatched up by a pervert while trick-or-treating. But there is no evidence that children are more likely to be abducted, assaulted, or abused on Halloween than on any other day. To be sure, crime data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System shows that there is no recorded spike in sex crimes before or after the holiday.

Even so, many states have adopted draconian measures to protect kids from stranger danger on Halloween. In Missouri, if you're on the sex-offender registry on October 31, you have to be in your house from 5 PM to 10:30 PM unless you have a really good reason; you also have to turn off your porch lights and put up a sign announcing "No candy or treats at this residence." Other states and local jurisdictions have similar restrictions that prohibit sex offenders from dressing up in costumes, decorating their homes, or driving after dark.

These regulations, which extend the reach of Megan's Law—a nickname for a category of statutes that are designed to prevent child molesters from preying on the kids in their neighborhood—would be a great help if sex offenders were all fundamentally evil would-be rapists and killers. But most registered sex offenders are not convicted of violent crimes. The crimes that can make you a "sex offender" range from rape to sexting with a teen to (in some states) public urination. And it should be noted that even for more serious crimes, recidivism rates for sex offenders are extremely low—only about 5 percent commit another sex crime after being released from prison. In 2008 the Department of Justice concluded that "Megan's Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses." So why have these Halloween restrictions at all?

"Just because you're on the registry doesn't mean the Constitution doesn't apply," said Janice Bellucci, an attorney and president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws. Earlier this month, Bellucci met with registrants and their families in the ACLU building in downtown Los Angeles, where she talked with them about their everyday nightmares. One registrant at the meeting asked about whether or not his family could have Halloween decorations on their house. "If your kid colors a pumpkin, that could be considered a violation of your parole," said Bellucci. "Look, we don't agree with this, but if you don't comply, you're going to jail."

The ACLU has decried policies that stigmatize sex offenders; the civil-liberties organization has partnered with Reform of Sex Offender Laws, Inc. (RSOL), to challenge some of these Halloween policies as well as other requirements that stigmatize sex offenders. Bellucci has successfully reversed some of these policies in counties across California by arguing that they're unconstitutional.

That sort of activism hasn't stopped the nationwide trend toward more restrictions, however. In Illinois, a new law effectively bans sex offenders from participating in any "public holiday" events—dressing up as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, or handing out candy on Halloween. In Caseyville, a small town in Illinois, there's been a hoopla over a registered sex offender whose house is decked out in spider webs, pumpkins, and witches' cauldrons this year. The decorations are not his—they belong to his roommate, who is not a registered sex offender—but the neighbors have complained to law enforcement that the decorations "draw kids in" and it makes them "really nervous about the kids in the neighborhood."

In some states, the cops actually drive around on the evening of Halloween to check on every sex offender's house, to ensure that registrants are complying with the restrictions. Anything from a pumpkin to a bowl of candy can warrant a re-arrest.

California, where Andrew and his family live, has been closely monitoring sex offenders on parole to make sure they don't leave their homes or answer the door after dark since 1994; the compliance checks are nicknamed—no joke—"Operation Boo." The cops can't do drive-by check-ins on all 100,000 registered sex offenders, so the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website encourages adults to wear an Operation Boo "parent patrol badge" to "let everyone know you're a part of the growing army of parents fighting back against sexual predators."

When I spoke with Andrew about these conditions, he was surprisingly sympathetic. "Look, I have a daughter and a son—sometimes I want to see who [on the registry] is living down the street, too," he confessed. "But I don't want people to be afraid of me because I'm on the registry. I'm not a threat."

Like many people listed on the registry, Andrew's crime was nonviolent and an isolated incident (he was sentenced to only three months in jail) that involved fooling around with a younger girl when he was 20 years old. His crime also occurred almost 30 years ago, and a lot has changed since then: He's been to counseling, he's gotten married, and he has a family. But when other parents discover that he's on the registry, they won't let their kids come over to play with his daughter. He's treated like a monster.

Of course, "no-candy" laws are just one small aspect of the restrictions placed on registered sex offenders—they're barred from living in certain areas and must avoid going to some parks and playgrounds. Andrew told me he was asked not to return to the YMCA where his son goes swimming once the staff there discovered him on the registry.

Back in May, the California Sex Offender Management Board admitted that the registry isn't really doing much good and should be limited to violent offenders only. But with the pressure to keep communities safe, few lawmakers want to risk looking sympathetic toward sex offenders. Two years ago the town of Simi Valley, just north of Los Angeles, proposed a policy that would force registered sex offenders to post a sign on their doors during Halloween announcing "A registered sex offender lives here."

The proposal terrified Bill, a sex offender living in Simi Valley. Bill was convicted almost 30 years ago for a minor offense that didn't result in any prison time. (As he describes it, a young girl walked in on him taking a shower.)

Bill's wife told me that just before Halloween, "the police came to our door, in uniform, and handed us copies of the ordinance. We were afraid of what might happen to us from our neighbors, or anyone."

Their terror comes from the horror stories of sex offenders being brutally attacked. Last year, a registered sex offender in Baltimore was beaten to death in broad daylight; a registrant in Rhode Island was similarly killed earlier this year; a few years ago, a group of teens in Florida beat a registrant and killed his dog.

Before you visit any state's sex offender registry online, you have to check a box agreeing that you won't use this information to "harass" or otherwise inundate the offenders listed. But registrants have reason to assume not everyone will abide by that honor system, and having to stake signs in their yards on Halloween certainly doesn't help calm them down.

Recently, Bellucci successfully sued Simi Valley for their policy requiring sex offenders to put signs on their lawns during Halloween. But the registrants still had to follow the other restrictions placed upon them: not answering the door, not wearing costumes, and not passing out candy. Mitchell, a sex offender who was a plaintiff in that lawsuit, told me that because the ordinance doesn't specify the distinction between what he can do and what his family can do, his family wasn't able to enjoy Halloween either. They spent the holiday last year with the lights off and doors locked. His kids are older teenagers now, so they aren't much into trick-or-treating themselves, but he told me that the ordinance took something "neighborly" and turned it into something sinister.

"Normally we would put out a pumpkin by the door, but we were afraid that would constitute decorating for Halloween, which was also forbidden," Bill told me. This Halloween, the family will also leave their lights out and keep the door locked.

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