Jill S. Levenson, Ph.D., LCSW
Associate Professor of Social Work
Miami Shores, FL
It is almost Halloween, and as we begin to feel a chill in the air in the northern hemisphere, we also feel the excitement of that annual ritual of trick or treating. But while children look forward to a night of ghouls, ghosts, goblins and goodies, parents ponder the presence of real-life demons in the neighborhood: registered sex offenders. States, municipalities, and parole departments have adopted policies banning known sex offenders from Halloween activities (or, in some jurisdictions, from even leaving their homes on Halloween), based on the concern that they pose an increased risk to children on this day. So, my colleagues and I (Chaffin, Levenson, Letourneau, & Stern, 2009) set out to test this assumption…
Using national incident-based reporting system (NIBRS) crime report data from 1997 through 2005, we examined 67,045 non-familial sex crimes against children age 12 and younger. Halloween rates were compared to expectations based on time, seasonality and weekday periodicity. There were no significant increases in sex crimes on or around Halloween, and Halloween incidents did not demonstrate unusual case characteristics. Findings did not vary in the years prior to and after these policies became popular. If these policies were to have an effect on overall Halloween victimization, we would expect that the rates of offenses on Halloween would show a greater decline over time relative to the rates for other days. In order to test whether there may have been greater reductions in sex offense rates on Halloween relative to other days over the nine-year span, a year-by-Halloween interaction term was added to the model. No statistically significant differences were found.
We then examined over 5 million crimes that took place in 30 states on or around Halloween in 2005. The most common types of crime on Halloween and adjacent days were theft (32%), destruction or vandalism of property (21%), assault (19%) and burglary (9%). Vandalism and property destruction accounted for a greater proportion of crime around Halloween compared to other days of the year (21% vs. 14% of all reports). Sex crimes of all types accounted for slightly over 1% of all Halloween crime. Non-familial sex crimes against children age 12 and under accounted for less than .2% (2 out of every thousand crimes) of all Halloween crime incidents.
Other risks to children are much more salient on Halloween. According to the Center for Disease Control, children ages 5 to 14 are four times more likely to be killed by a pedestrian/motor-vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year. These findings call into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns on Halloween.
The disregard for evidence when it comes to sex offender policies is not unique to Halloween. We know that copious resources are expended for registration and notification (SORN) systems in the U.S., despite nearly two dozen research studies suggesting that SORN policies are responsible for little, if any, appreciable decline in sex crime rates or sex offense recidivism (see, for example, Ackerman, Sacks, & Greenberg, 2012; Agan, 2011; Letourneau, Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010; Prescott & Rockoff, 2011; Sandler, Freeman, & Socia, 2008; Tewksbury, Jennings, & Zgoba, 2012; Vasquez, Maddan, & Walker, 2008; Zgoba, Witt, Dalessandro, & Veysey, 2009). Many other studies have documented the unintended consequences of these laws, including stigmatization, marginalization, and seemingly insurmountable reintegration obstacles to stable housing and employment (Levenson & D'Amora, 2007; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2009). The impact of residential restrictions on housing availability, transience, and homelessness is well documented (Levenson, Ackerman, Socia, & Harris, 2014; Zandbergen & Hart, 2009), as is the lack of evidence indicating that residential proximity to schools and other child oriented venues is correlated with risk for sexual recidivism (Colombino, Mercado, Levenson, & Jeglic, 2011; Duwe, Donnay, & Tewksbury, 2008; Zandbergen, Levenson, & Hart, 2010).
Some scholars have opined that sex offender policies are designed to accomplish both instrumental and symbolic objectives, and that understanding both is essential in the continuing dialogue about SORN laws and prevention of sexual violence (Sample, Evans, & Anderson, 2011). Policy enactment can serve to inspire and reinforce social solidarity by uniting against a common enemy (Roots, 2004). Sex offender laws send a clear message that sexual victimization will not be tolerated and that politicians are willing to address public safety concerns (Sample, et al., 2011; Sample & Kadleck, 2008). Sample et al. (2011) speculated that symbolic policies might achieve instrumental effects over time -- perhaps measured by a wider range of outcomes beyond recidivism -- but that in the cost/benefit analysis, the symbolic expression of zero tolerance for sexual violence will always outweigh offender rights, fiscal considerations, and empirical testing.
But policy analysis requires a continuous process of evaluation that measures progress toward intended goals as well as unanticipated consequences that might prove contrary to the best interests of the community. Levenson and D'Amora (2007) asserted that ignoring evidence is similar to Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Emperor's New Clothes in which the king paraded around town nude, fooled into wearing invisible clothes that purportedly could be seen by only an enlightened few. Similarly, in the absence of compelling evidence indicating that these policies reduce sexual reoffending, attention should be paid to mounting proof of reintegration obstacles fostered by these laws.
Lest some critics suggest that by pointing out the limitations of these laws I am demonstrating a lack of concern for the safety of children, I'd argue that we are all on the same side. We all want to live in safer communities and I agree that public awareness generated by these laws has led to important dialogue about intolerance of sexual violence. But as tax-paying citizens, don't we also want our resources to be utilized in ways that are most likely to achieve the expected goals? And don't social scientists have an obligation to help inform strategies designed to enhance the public good?
Enactment of social policies should consider scientific evidence, and policies are most likely to be successful when they incorporate research findings into their development and implementation. A more reasoned approach (Tabachnick & Klein, 2011) to sex offender policies would utilize empirically derived risk assessment tools to create classification systems that target more aggressive monitoring and tighter restrictions toward those who pose the greatest threat to public safety. In this way, laws could more effectively identify and manage higher-risk offenders within a more cost-efficient allocation of resources. As well, the collateral consequences of community protection policies could be minimized and sex offenders could be better enabled to engage in a law-abiding and prosocial lifestyle. Most sex offenders will ultimately be returned to the community, and when they are, it behooves us to facilitate reintegrative strategies that rely on empirical research to inform community protection. In fact, the unintended consequences of these laws might undermine their very purpose. After all, when people have nothing to lose, they begin to behave accordingly.
Ackerman, A. R., Sacks, M., & Greenberg, D. F. (2012). Legislation targeting sex offenders: Are recent policies effective in reducing rape? Justice Quarterly, 29(6), 858-887.
Agan, A. Y. (2011). Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function? Journal of Law and Economics, 54(1), 207-239.
Chaffin, M., Levenson, J. S., Letourneau, E., & Stern, P. (2009). How safe are trick-or-treaters? An analysis of sex crimes on Halloween. 21(3). Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research & Treatment 21(3), 363-374.
Colombino, N., Mercado, C. C., Levenson, J. S., & Jeglic, E. L. (2011). Preventing sexual violence: Can examination of offense location inform sex crime policy? International Journal of Psychiatry and Law, doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.04.002.
Duwe, G., Donnay, W., & Tewksbury, R. (2008). Does residential proximity matter? A geographic analysis of sex offense recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(4), 484-504.
Letourneau, E., Levenson, J. S., Bandyopadhyay, D., Sinha, D., & Armstrong, K. (2010). Effects of South Carolina's sex offender registration and notification policy on adult recidivism. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 21(4), 435-458.
Levenson, J. S., & D'Amora, D. A. (2007). Social policies designed to prevent sexual violence: The Emperor's New Clothes? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18(2), 168-199.
Levenson, J. S., Ackerman, A. R., Socia, K. M., & Harris, A. J. (2014). Transient Sex Offenders and Residence Restrictions. Criminal Justice Policy Review. doi: 10.1177/0887403413512326
Mercado, C. C., Alvarez, S., & Levenson, J. S. (2008). The impact of specialized sex offender legislation on community re-entry. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 20(2), 188-205.
Prescott, J. J., & Rockoff, J. E. (2011). Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior? Journal of Law and Economics, 54, 161-206.
Roots, R. I. (2004). When laws backfire: Unintended consequences of public policy. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(11), 1376-1394.
Sample, L. L., & Kadleck, C. (2008). Sex offender laws: Legislators' accounts of the need for policy. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 19(1), 40-62.
Sample, L. L., Evans, M. K., & Anderson, A. L. (2011). Sex offender community notification laws: Are their effects symbolic or instrumental in nature? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 22(1), 27-49.
Sandler, J. C., Freeman, N. J., & Socia, K. M. (2008). Does a watched pot boil? A time-series analysis of New York State's sex offender registration and notification law. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 14(4), 284-302.
Tabachnick, J., & Klein, A. (2011). A reasoned approach: Reshaping sex offender policy to prevent child sexual abuse. Beaverton, OR: Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
Tewksbury, R., & Mustaine, E. (2009). Stress and collateral consequences for registered sex offenders. Journal of Public Management and Social Policy, Fall, 215-239.
Tewksbury, R., Jennings, W. G., & Zgoba, K. M. (2012). A longitudinal examination of sex offender recidivism prior to and following the implementation of SORN. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 30(3), 308-328.
Vasquez, B. E., Maddan, S., & Walker, J. T. (2008). The influence of sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States. Crime and Delinquency, 54(2), 175-192.
Zandbergen, P., & Hart, T. (2009). Availability and Spatial Distribution of Affordable Housing in Miami-Dade County and Implications of Residency Restriction Zones for Registered Sex Offenders Retrieved 9/9/09, from http://www.aclufl.org/pdfs/SORRStudy.pdf
Zandbergen, P., Levenson, J. S., & Hart, T. (2010). Residential proximity to schools and daycares: An empirical analysis of sex offense recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 37(5), 482-502.
Zgoba, K., Witt, P., Dalessandro, M., & Veysey, B. (2009). Megan’s Law: Assessing the practical and monetary efficacy. Retrieved from http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/225370.pdf