October 30, 2009

Halloween "security theater" endures

Ho-hum. Another Halloween, another senseless roundup of sex offenders. This is the third year in a row that I have posted about the sex offender hysteria on All Hallows Eve that seems completely impervious to logic, common sense, and -- now -- even research.

What's new this year is that a Florida professor has done the empirical research to prove what people in the field already knew: Sex offenders aren't out snatching and molesting children on Halloween.

Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University, studied a 9-year period and found no spikes in sex crimes against children on Halloween. Her study was just published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment.

"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," Levenson noted.

Unfortunately, her research seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Last year, when some of the sillier Halloween restrictions were ridiculed by late-night TV pundits and at least one was struck down by a U.S. district judge as overly broad, I naively thought the pendulum might be swinging. But even studies by experts such as Dr. Levenson seem incapable of bringing common sense to bear. Probation officers and others are continuing 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 year, more parole and probation officers than ever are ordering convicted sex offenders not to answer their doors, decorate their porches, or wear costumes on Halloween. More sex offenders are being ordered to post "NO CANDY HERE" signs on their doors. Others are being required to 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 in the past. If you are interested, just do a Google news search for "Halloween sex offender roundup."

The farcical crackdowns are a prime example of what Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast has labeled "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 broad 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 plays off of a deep-rooted cultural fear of the bogeyman stranger, as memorialized in the timeworn Halloween legend of tainted candy, which has endured despite myriad attempts at correction. As Benjamin Radford of the Skeptical Enquirer pointed out a few years ago 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 mama 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.

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Photo credit: Kaushik Gopal (Creative Commons license)