It’s Halloween, so children have dreams of scaring adults, and adults have nightmares about other adults harming children. Lawmakers in Missouri this year have been concerned about a particular kind of harm: sexual offenses against children. They passed a state law that prohibited convicted sexual offenders from having any “Halloween-related contact with children,” and required the offenders to remain at their homes on Halloween night between the trick-or-treat hours of 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. unless they have “just cause” for leaving. The law did not define either “just cause” or “Halloween-related contact.” The law also required sexual offenders to turn off any porch lights and to post signs stating “no candy or treats at this residence.”
On Monday a federal judge issued an order blocking most parts of the statute as unclear, leaving in place only the provisions requiring that porch lights be extinguished and that there be a sign announcing that no candy would be given out at the offenders’ residences. Opponents of the law had argued that it was unclear; for example, did it prohibit contact between the sexual offenders and their own children on Halloween even if such contact would not be prohibited on other days? Would a convicted sexual offender have to avoid the decoration section of stores if children were there picking out their pumpkins? Opponents also argued that the law was an unfair double punishment for a crime for which a sentence had already been served.
Did the court make the right decision? I would say yes.
The image of a sexual offender luring an unsuspecting trick-or-treater into his or her home is unsettling to be sure. However, forbidding the offenders from offering treats at their homes addresses this issue quite adequately. It hardly seems necessary from a child protection perspective to subject the sexual offenders to a form of house arrest and deny them virtually all participation in Halloween activities. There is nothing about Halloween itself that makes sexual offenders more likely to offend again, other than the temptation of children appearing on their front porches – but that has already been addressed by the statute. Many sexual offenders have parole terms that limit their contact with children anyway, so trying to limit such contact further does indeed seem like a type of blanket punishment imposed upon people who have already been punished in other, individually determined ways.
I think that this Halloween law is indicative of a larger, uncomfortable truth: many people regard sexual offenders as ghouls and vampires who are not quite human. Since Halloween is the holiday dedicated to such creatures, it may seem that sexual offenders would naturally join the ghosts and goblins in wreaking havoc on the rest of us. We already live in a society where we can easily locate registered sexual offenders and, presumably, avoid them (see for example www.familywatchdog.us/ to map the location of sexual offenders near your home). Another truth is this: sexual offenders are human beings who have committed serious crimes. If they have been tried and convicted, they have served time. If they have been released, then they may need further rehabilitation. They should not be punished indiscriminately, however, when there is no proof of further crimes.
Perhaps the most frightening truth is this: it is the unidentified sexual offenders who have not been caught, tried or convicted who pose the greatest risk to our children. We can’t protect our children against those people with Halloween laws. We will have to rely instead on supervising our children closely and teaching them common sense ways to protect themselves when we cannot be with them.