Why Laws Restricting Sex Offenders' Activities on Halloween are Misguided

It has become an October tradition for the media to run story after story warning parents that sex offenders are at an increased risk of committing sex crimes against children on Halloween. All of the panic stoked by these claims has prompted lawmakers across the country to begin passing laws that restrict the activities of convicted sex offenders on Halloween--such as mandatory curfews--or that require police officers to check up on sex offenders during trick-or-treat hours.

But is it true that there's a higher risk of sex crimes taking place on Halloween? And is there any evidence that laws like this actually make us safer? Let's take a look at the data.

In a 2009 article published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, national crime rate statistics from 1997-2005 were analyzed to determine whether sex offenders are indeed using Halloween as cover to harm children [1]. The researchers looked at reports of rape and sexual assault across each of these years in cases where the victims were 12 years of age or younger and where the perpetrators were not members of their victims' families. The data were purposively limited to these circumstances because the primary concern with Halloween-related sex offenses, of course, comes from strangers. Halloween was defined as a three-day period: Halloween itself, as well as the two preceding days. This was done to account for year-to-year variations in the day of the week Halloween falls and when trick-or-treating is scheduled.

For each of the 9 years of data, no statistically significant increase in sex offenses was observed on Halloween or on the days leading up to it. Furthermore, the nature of the sex crimes committed on Halloween did not differ from average.

"What the data show is simply that there's no evidence of increased risk on Halloween."

This is not to say that Halloween poses no risk for sexual violence or that no one has ever tried to exploit it for this purpose; rather, what the data show is simply that there's no evidence that Halloween poses more risk than any other day of the year. In light of this, instead of applying extra vigilance to stopping potential sex crimes during trick-or-treating, perhaps we should direct that attention toward the risks that are indeed elevated on this holiday, such as the fact that kids have a significantly higher chance of being hit by cars.

Compared to all other days of the year, children are actually four times as likely to be struck and killed by a motor vehicle on Halloween [2]. That's a substantial and important risk, but one that few journalists and lawmakers recognize each October.

As for all of the new legal restrictions facing sex offenders, it is important to note that there is growing evidence that placing blanket legal restrictions on where sex offenders can live and/or where they can go does not necessarily increase public safety. In fact, these laws seem to offer little more than the illusion of safety and, paradoxically, may be counterproductive. How so? To the extent that such laws force sex offenders into homelessness, it can become much harder to monitor those who are at a high risk of re-offending and provide ongoing treatment. 

A big part of the problem is that these laws are predicated on a false belief: that all sex offenders pose an equally grave risk to children. The truth is that not all offenders have sexual interest in children and not all offenders are equally likely to re-offend. These laws could potentially be used to greater effect if they were instead based on an individualized assessment of risk instead of treating sex offenders as a monolithic group.

In short, research does not support the idea that there are more sex crimes on Halloween, all of the media panic about this seems to be overshadowing known risks to children's safety on this day (particularly car accidents), and blanket restrictions on the activities of sex offenders don't make us safer. Of course, we absolutely should be cautious on Halloween and take steps to protect the health and safety of kids, but let's make sure to apply that enhanced vigilance in ways that are truly going to help.

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[1] Chaffin, M., Levenson, J., Letourneau, E., & Stern, P. (2009). How safe are trick-or-treaters? An analysis of child sex crime rates on Halloween. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 21, 363-374.

[2] Centers for Disease Control. (1997). Childhood pedestrian deaths during Halloween—United States, 1975-1996. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 46, 987-990.

Image Credit: 123RF.com/Chris Brignell

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