Operation Boo: It’s too broad

Society tends to fear the most dramatic dangers rather than the most likely ones. Abductions in which a child is killed, for instance, often prompt a wave of fear and some new get-tough-on-crime legislation. Yet many people might be surprised to learn that about 40 children each year are kidnapped and killed by a stranger, according to the U.S. Department of Justice — while close to 1,000 children each year die in a car accident in which the driver is drunk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Similarly, Operation Boo, which prohibits sex-offender parolees in most of California from decorating their homes or offering candy on Halloween and requires many homeless sex offenders to spend the evening in designated “roundup centers,” strikes us as a program that does more to address fears of the unlikely than it does to protect children. The recidivism rate for sex offenders is relatively low, though it varies depending on many factors; not all sex offenders are pedophiles; and the state cannot point to any higher risk of sexual molestation on Halloween that would justify its decision to adopt these measures.

Operation Boo has been around for 18 years, but this year, the rules were broadened to include the roundup of transient parolees. About 2,000 of the state’s sex offender parolees are homeless, in part because of tight restrictions on where they can live. In some communities, it’s nearly impossible to find housing far enough away from a school or park to meet the dictates of state law.

Parents have a right and a responsibility to keep their children safe, and state and local governments must do what they can to help. But there is little if any evidence that Operation Boo and similar crackdowns are effective or efficient. There could be more to fear from a familiar neighbor who invites a child into his or her home than from a registered sex offender who puts a jack-o'-lantern on the front walkway. An Ohio study found that most sex offenders in its prisons had never been convicted of such a crime before, and the California Sex Offender Management Board found that 90% of child molestations are committed by someone the child knows. There might be reason for the state to restrict the activities of at least some paroled child molesters, but it should fine-tune its over-broad rules. Of the nearly 9,000 sex offenders affected by Operation Boo, it’s unknown how many are child molesters.

A more effective approach might be to educate parents about Halloween safety measures. Young children should be chaperoned by adults. Older children should travel in groups. All should be cautioned to stay out of people’s houses. But even on Halloween, we don’t have to give in to outsized fears.