Thursday, October 28, 2010

Yet another year of (yawn) Halloween security theater

Evidence and common sense no match for hype

For many, Halloween is a blast. Trick-or-treating, giving out candy, dressing up, perhaps even throwing a party.

But for many convicted sex offenders, it is the most dreaded night of the year. Group roundups, dusk-to-dawn curfews with the lights out, mandatory "no candy" signs on their doors and spot checks for compliance are among the various techniques of control ostensibly designed to protect the public.

Contary to the sex offender hysteria on All Hallows Eve, however, sex offenders are not out snatching and molesting children on Halloween. And they never have been.

Last year, a published study proved what most experts already knew: There is no Halloween spike in sex crimes against children.

"The wide net cast by Halloween laws places some degree of burden on law enforcement officers whose time would otherwise be allocated to addressing more probably dangerous events," noted Jill Levenson of Lynn University in Florida, one of the study's authors. Her research, published in the journal Sexual Abuse, examined crime trends over a 9-year period.

The researchers used data from the National Incident-Base Reporting System to examine crime trends in 30 U.S. states over a 9-year period. They found no increased rate of sexual abuse during the Halloween season. Also, the number of reported incidences did not rise or fall after police implemented current procedures.

Unfortunately, empirical evidence seems incapable of bringing common sense to bear. Probation officers and others continue to implement ridiculous roundups and other once-a-year restrictions on sex offenders, instead of focusing on the real threat to children, which I'll get to in a moment.

Around the nation this Halloween, parole and probation officers will continue to order convicted sex offenders not to answer their doors, decorate their porches, or wear costumes on Halloween. Sex offenders are being ordered to post "NO CANDY HERE" signs on their doors. Others must attend special Halloween "counseling sessions" or "movie nights" where they will be monitored (and, incidentally, protected from false accusations). The restrictions are so widespread and so varied that I no longer have the time or energy to catalog them as I have done on my professional blog in past years. (If you are interested, just do a Google news search for "Halloween sex offender roundup.")

This despite at least one federal court ruling that the restrictions were overly broad, and ridicule from late-night TV pundits of some of the sillier Halloween restrictions.

The farcical crackdowns are a prime example of what Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast calls "security theater," that is, "hyping (and pretending to solve) a threat that in reality is extremely remote, even to the point of diverting resources from policing activities like DWI enforcement that would protect more people and save more lives."

Why Halloween, we might ask? After all, most sex offenders target people they know, not children off the street. And the crackdowns on registered sex offenders miss the mark anyway, because the overwhelming majority of new sex offenses are committed by men who have never been caught for a past sex offense. Furthermore, registered sex offenders feel so branded and ostracized that most are ducking and hiding today.

But the scare feeds into a deep-rooted cultural fear of the bogeyman stranger. This fear is memorialized in the timeworn Halloween legend of tainted candy that has endured despite myriad attempts at correction. As Benjamin Radford of the Skeptical Enquirer pointed out about the persistence of that stranger-danger myth:

"Despite e-mail warnings, scary stories, and Ann Landers columns to the contrary, there have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents."

The sad part of both myths is that children are taught a message of fear: Strangers, or even their own neighbors, might try to poison or molest them.

Oh, yes. What is the real danger facing children this Halloween?

It's one your mother always warned you about: Getting hit by a speeding car while crossing a dark street. Car accidents kill about 8,000 children every year in the United States. And children are more than twice as likely to be killed by a car while walking on Halloween night than at any other time of the year.

So this Halloween, show compassion toward a publicly identified sex offender. But please, children, don't get too friendly with cars.

Recommended reading:

Stranger danger and the decline of Halloween, Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Lenore Skenazy (author of Free Range Kids)

I can't believe that this is the fourth year in a row that I have posted a Halloween sex offender roundup. Prior posts:

2007: Beware the Halloween bogeyman!

2008: Pendulum swing on Halloween hype? (Oops! That one was just wishful thinking.)

2009: Halloween "security theater" endures

2010: Psychology Today blog post

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