A Georgia lawmakers hopes his state will join several others – including Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and Louisiana – and dozens of cities, towns, and counties across the US that now order registered sex offenders to put out a "NO CANDY HERE" sign.
It's a gambit to warn trick or treaters against possible molesters. But it also raises constitutional and societal questions over identifying America's more than 500,000 registered sex offenders by where they live.
"There's a lot of fake monsters running around on Halloween, but there are some real ones, too," says Georgia state Rep. Rob Teilhet, who is running for attorney general. He calls Halloween "a unique time period of vulnerability" for children.
More state parole officers are ordering convicted sex offenders not to answer their doors, decorate their porches, or wear costumes to greet kids on Halloween, experts say.
Last year, Maryland pulled back from mandating "no candy here" signs featuring a pumpkin after the display became the butt of late-night TV jokes. (The state said the jokes weren't the reason the state pulled the pumpkin signs and replaced them with signs showing only the words "no candy here.")
With millions of costumed kids skipping down darkened streets, it's little wonder that sex offenders have become real-life bogeymen for some parents and politicians.
But even organizations that work on behalf of sexual-assault victims suggest that some efforts seem intended more for political show than for addressing a real problem. Most sexual assaults, including those involving kids, aren't between strangers, experts note, but between people who know one another.
"We don't have evidence of higher incidence of sexual offenses against children on Halloween than other times," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. "And because there are offenders who don't have prior history, it's important that communities don't feel a sense of security because sex offenders are required to stay in the house with the porch lights off."
Still, new laws such as one in St. Johns County, in northeast Florida, touch on frightening news events like the recent death of a Florida girl, Somer Thompson, whose house had 90 registered sex offenders living within a three-mile radius.
But there is some pushback.
Last year, four sex offenders in Missouri challenged parts of a Halloween-related law that ordered registered sex offenders to abstain from any Halloween-related activities. A judge blocked the law, calling it too broad. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, there were also concerns that Halloween pranksters could target homes specifically because of the signs.
The US Supreme Court allowed registries to be publicly posted in 2003. A federal law in 2006 closed loopholes that allowed sex offenders to get "lost" by moving between states. That law also mandates that states make it easy for residents to locate sex offenders in their neighborhoods using tools like Google Maps.
States are currently working toward tiered designations of sex offenders so residents can more easily distinguish between high-risk offenders "and the guy arrested for public exposure at Mardi Gras, which is a registrable offense in some states," as Mr. Allen puts it.
"A key point is that all sex offenders are not alike," he says.
Still, Representative Teilhet says parents are right to be concerned about their kids knocking on the wrong door.
"One of the reasons we decided as a society to keep track of these folks is they are difficult to reform and there are a lot of repeat offenders," he says. "A lot of people on that registry are very bad news."
Somer Thompson lived near 161 sex offenders. Is that number high?
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