Reason agrees: No red dots marking those on sex offense registry at Halloween


Originally published 10/1/2020 at Reason; reprinted in full here with permission.

By Jacob Sullum . . .Ā Every year in the run-up to Halloween,Ā PatchĀ publishes mapsĀ showing the homes of ā€œregistered sex offendersā€ in various cities. Ostensibly, this information is aimed at helping parents who worry that their children might be molested while trick-or-treating. But research shows that such fears haveĀ no basis in reality, and these storiesā€”like theĀ warning signsĀ andĀ restrictionsĀ imposed by local police prior to Halloweenā€”mainly serve to stigmatize people who have already completed their sentences, along with their spouses and children, who have committed no crimes at all. That stigma invites harassment, vandalism, and violence. Like much local journalism, the practice of publishing these maps is ill-informed sensationalism masquerading as a public service.

This fall aĀ petitionĀ organized by the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (NARSOL) is urgingĀ PatchĀ and other outlets to cut it out. Noting the ā€œtotal lack of evidence that the publication of these addresses at Halloween keeps children safe,ā€ the petition asks news organizations to ā€œcease a hurtful publication practice that has no positive effect at all on child protection or public safety.ā€

The irrationality of that practice is clear once you understand a few basic facts:

1. Sex offender registries include aĀ wide rangeĀ of people, many of whom were not convicted of crimes against children.

2. Sex offenders stay on the registry long after they have completed their official punishment, even though they areĀ less likelyĀ to commit new offenses of the same type than people convicted of other crimes. According to aĀ 2019 reportĀ from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), less than 8 percent of people who had served sentences for rape or sexual assault were rearrested for a similar crime within nine years after they were released. That report also shows that the annual risk of recidivism falls dramatically over time.

3. The vast majority of sexually abused minorsā€”93 percent, according to a 2000 BJSĀ reportā€”are assaulted by relatives, family friends, or other people they already know.

4. The vast majority of convicted sex offendersā€”86 percent, according to another BJSĀ reportā€”have no prior convictions for this category of crime, so they would not show up in registries.

5. There is no evidence that children face a higher risk of sexual assault on Halloween than they do the rest of the year. A 2009Ā analysisĀ of 67,000 cases, reported in the journalĀ Sexual Abuse, found ā€œno increased rate on or just before Halloween.ā€

The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA)Ā amplifiesĀ that last point: ā€œA heightened risk of being sexually abused is NOT one of the dangers children face at Halloween. The simple fact is that there are no significant increases in sex crimes on or around Halloween. There is no ā€˜Halloween effect.ā€™ There is no change in the rate of sexual crimes by non-family members during Halloween. That was true both before and after communities enacted laws to restrict the activities of registrants during Halloween.ā€

In light of this evidence, the NARSOL petition argues, pre-Halloween stories showing the homes of people on the sex offender registry are gratuitous, unethical, and reckless. NARSOL adds that the focus on a nonexistent threat distracts attention from the main perpetrators of sex offenses against children, which are rarely committed by strangers, and from the main danger that kids face on Halloween: traffic accidents.Ā The Washington PostĀ reportsĀ that ā€œchildren are three times more likely to be fatally injured by a car on the holiday, and the risk grows to 10 times for kids 4 to 8.ā€

The 150 or so signatories include ATSA, activists and journalists (includingĀ ReasonĀ contributorĀ Lenore Skenazy) who support reform of sex offense laws, and an impressive list of professionals and academics. Among them are Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University; Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University; Fred Berlin, director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention, and Treatment of Sexual Trauma; Carleton University psychologist Karl Hanson; Arizona State law professor Ira Ellman; Southwestern Law School professor Catherine Carpenter; and University of Delaware sociologist Chrysanthi Leon.

Might these experts know more about this subject than the editors and writers whoĀ insistĀ that parents should ā€œfind out where the registered sex offenders are livingā€¦before the kids go out trick-or-treatingā€? PerhapsĀ PatchĀ will consider the possibility.

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