California Is Re-Visiting Its Halloween-Specific Laws Against Sex Offenders

And that might actually be a good thing.
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And that might actually be a good thing.
(Photo: Kim Woodbridge/Flickr)

(Photo: Kim Woodbridge/Flickr)

This Halloween, sex offenders throughout California will not be required to place signs on their doors notifying trick-or-treaters that they can't participate in Halloween. Though controversial, removing the notifications could have its merits.

The signage falls under a state-wide sexual abuse prevention program called "Operation Boo," which has been implemented every Halloween by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation since 1994. Operation Boo is currently the focus of a lawsuit filed against the CDCR by California Reform Sex Offender Laws. The organization claims the signs—which read, "We Do Not Participate in Trick or Treating"—are unconstitutional and place sex offender parolees in danger.

Registered sex offenders still have to adhere to other requirements of Operation Boo this Halloween, including a 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. Offenders are also prohibited from turning on any exterior house lights, opening their doors to anyone other than law enforcement, decorating their homes, or offering candy to trick-or-treaters. It's a delicate balance between protecting children from sexual abuse and re-integrating sex offenders back into society.

The best protection against sexual recidivism is welcoming offenders back into society, rather than alienating or ostracizing them.

In our March/April issue, Alastair Gee wrote about Circles of Support and Accountability, a new trend in sex-offender management. COSA's premise is that the best protection against sexual recidivism is welcoming offenders back into society, rather than alienating or ostracizing them. Indeed, studies suggest COSA programs could reduce sexual recidivism by 60 to 80 percent. "Unless we decide to lock up all such offenders indefinitely, programs like COSA may be the best we can do," Gee writes.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that there are roughly 800,000 registered sex offenders living in the United States. As Gee reports, it's difficult to measure sexual recidivism rates because many sexual crimes go unreported. According to a 2004 survey of Canadian, American, and British sex offenders, 24 percent of offenders commit an act of abuse within 15 years of their release from jail. Gee explores how COSA, and the supportive social networks the programs offers, can help lower recidivism rates:

In the words of Ian Elliott, a forensic research psychologist who has received funding from the National Institute of Justice to study COSA, the aim today is to "produce pro-social people, as opposed to just well-managed people"—to encourage people to avoid re-offending not because they are afraid of the legal consequences, but because they recognize the harm their actions can cause others and themselves. COSA circles tend to focus on practical and lifestyle issues: how to get a job, make friends, and recognize a drift toward re-offending. COSA guidelines suggest that a volunteer from the group be in touch with an offender every day for the first few weeks after his release, and that the whole group meet at frequent intervals.

COSA groups are slowly gaining popularity throughout North America, Gee writes. Both Minnesota and Vermont receive funding from correctional services for their COSA programs, and have relationships with local prisons, parole officers, or hospitals. (In Canada, high-risk sex offenders are actually referred to COSA before their release from prison.)

Protocol for managing sex offenders varies across the country. Each state has a public sex offender registry, and most prohibit convicted offenders from residing up to 2,500 feet from schools and other places where children often gather. But, as Gee reports, registries can't really do much more than give communities a sense of security. A 2014 report on sex offender management commissioned by the Department of Justice found that registries have "mixed" results, and residency restrictions are often counter-productive.

"The policy can end up being one of de facto ostracism," Gee writes. "And yet re-offending is least likely ... when offenders manage to find stable places of residence and employment in their communities and enjoy social support. This is why COSA programs focus on helping sex offenders to re-establish themselves in normal society. But finding stable employment and social moorings for modern-day pariahs is, it turns out, no small feat."

Nor is navigating Halloween.


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.