The sex offender registry: a many-headed monster

By Sandy . . .

What do these headlines have in common?

“U.S. Marshals protect trick-or-treaters from the threat of sex offenders.” 

“ ‘Operation Blackout,’ annual Halloween Tennessee sex offender sweep, underway”

“Operation Lights Out aims to keep your children safe on Halloween”

They all appeared in the week or so leading up to Halloween. They all connect Halloween, persons on sex offender registries, and danger to children. They all promise, directly or indirectly, to protect children from the dangers inherent in the situation.

Are they successful?

The first headline is from Arizona. The follow-up, after-Halloween headline from one Arizona county claims, “Crime Trackers: Operation Safe Treat kept community safe”

Wonderful! How did they do that? According to the article, “The U.S. Marshals, along with Pima County Adult Probation officers, knocked on nearly 200 doors to see if sex offenders were in compliance, nine of them weren’t.” Not in compliance? What does that mean? “Those sex offenders who were busted weren’t following the rules. Adams said, ‘It can be for things such as leaving the porch light on. Putting out Halloween decorations, setting up haunted houses and things like that.’ ”

Oh. Well, as long as children were kept safe…

The second headline, from Tennessee, talks about a period of a couple of weeks leading up to Halloween called “Operation Blackout” when those on the registry have restrictions and random home visits from law enforcement and then are all placed under house arrest on Halloween evening itself. “Hundreds of teams of TDOC officers work with local law enforcement to check up on more than 3,000 sex offenders between October 21 and November 1, including more than 1,100 visits on Halloween night.”

Wow. Hundreds of teams. More than 1,100 home inspections on Halloween night itself. How many children did that keep safe?

“Operation Blackout nets one arrest statewide on Halloween”

“One person was arrested on Halloween as part of a statewide operation by the Tennessee Department of Correction during their annual ‘Operation Blackout’ checks.”

ONE arrest???

Maybe North Carolina did better. That is where the third headline is from. It appears that, unlike Tennessee, its efforts to protect children from registrants on Halloween vary county by county. According to this follow-up article, “Halloween sex offender meeting tradition continues in NC county,”  no one was arrested; they were all locked up. A quaint “tradition” has sprung up in Gaston County, and it is by no means confined to this county or to the state of North Carolina. In most cases, it involves only those who are still under supervision, such as probation or parole, but not in all cases, and apparently not in Gaston County. “ ‘Some resent having to come here on Halloween. Others understand the value of it,’ explained the sheriff. He said no offenders are exempt from the meeting…”

These cases, these states, these counties, are not in the minority. As closely as can be determined, 37 states either have state laws placing restrictions on registered sex offenders on Halloween or have counties within the states that do.

Does it work? Are children safer? The real question is were children ever at risk of harm to begin with. Studies and experts say no. The fact that there has been found not a single case of a child being harmed during trick-or-treat by a registrant says no. That is going back as far as the registry exists, around twenty years in its current form. That is recognizing that these “over the top” efforts by law enforcement have only been in fashion for less than ten of those years.

And that is recognizing that the count of children harmed in all of the states and all of the counties that place no restrictions whatsoever on those on the registry at Halloween is also zero.

This huge waste of resources across the nation is nothing short of criminal. This reinforcement of myth-based hysteria is counterproductive not only to public safety but also to public decency.

As did NARSOL and others, NARSOL’s Ohio affiliate undertook an education campaign in an attempt to combat the waste and hysteria. They report:

Through researching topics related to ‘trick and treat,’ ‘Halloween,’ and ‘registered sex offenders,’ many online articles were discovered again this year with a sensationalized title as to how publicly registered sex offenders would be dealt with in local vicinities across the United States. Most articles stemmed from local news media outlets posting information about mass law enforcement sweeps and how registrants would be prevented from participating in trick or treat festivities.

They then contacted reporters and publications through comments, emails, and Facebook posts.

A total of twelve (12) reporters and news outlets were contacted via email with a brief message introducing the idea of how and why there is no empirical evidence to suggest the validity of such provisions limiting registrants…

Unfortunately, none of the persons or publications contacted saw fit to respond in any manner. Disappointing but not surprising.

As reported here, some of NARSOL’s attempts to insert some sense into the madness were more favorably received, but we have much work to do. This is only one area needing attention. Residency restrictions, which are as big a waste of resources as are Halloween restrictions, persist. Restrictions on travel as evidenced through the dictates of International Megan’s Law are a very troubling concern. The inability to secure decent housing and employment continues to plague many registrants as does the right to pursue many normal, legal activities such as taking their children to parks or participating fully in their children’s education.

The registry and all it has spawned has many heads, and sometimes it seems that if we manage to cut off one of them, two grow in is place.

But we will keep chopping.

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Sandy is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.

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