By MARGARET THOMPSON
Rumors of razor blades in apples, children walking by themselves on busy streets at night, strangers wearing masks - Halloween festivities can conjure up a parent's worst nightmares.
For the second year, Girard is hoping to eliminate some perceived risks by preventing registered sexual offenders from participating in the activities, but whether the ordinance will be effective in preventing reoffense has yet to be seen.
The Girard ordinance prohibits registered sex offenders from using exterior lights on their homes and opening their doors to trick-or-treaters on city designated trick-or-treat days. They are also forbidden from decorating their homes and yard for Halloween.
"The following regulations impose reasonable time, place and manner regulations and are rationally related to the advance the city's interest in protecting children and the general public," the ordinance reads.
"Obviously we can't do enough to protect our children," Girard Mayor James Melfi said. "We're taking that step to show people we are thinking. It sets the stage for more awareness."
Similar ordinances have been passed in municipalities across the nation, several weeks ago in nearby Orwell and several years ago in multiple Texas cities. Last year, Simi Valley, Calif., passed an ordinance similar to Girard's but with the additional mandate that offenders post a sign in their yards announcing that no candy will be passed out at their residence.
Most common Halloween violations:
- Theft - 32%
- Destruction or vandalism - 21%
- Assault - 19%
- Burglary - 9%
- Sex crimes - 1%
Source: Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research and Treatment
The city was sued for encroaching on offenders' freedom of speech (Wikipedia) and ordered to remove the sign requirement.
Janice Bellucci, an attorney and president of the California Reform Sex Offender Laws group, led the lawsuit on behalf of the offenders. RSOL has state chapters across the country including one in Ohio. Bellucci said there is a common misconception nationwide that "once a sex offender, always a sex offender." She said, however, according to a study by the Department of Justice only 5.3 percent of offenders were found to recommit sex crimes within three years after being released from prison.
The study followed about 9,700 sex offenders, about 4,300 of whom were child molesters. Because of the low rate of reoffense, Bellucci said she believes the extra Halloween regulations are not effective and actually impose on the offenders' First Amendment rights.
Girard Law Director Brian Kren said the local ordinance was drafted to be "as respectful of peoples' rights as possible" even in the "limited circumstance" that offenders may attract children to their homes.
There are "no significant increases in sex crimes on or around Halloween," according to a study prepared for Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research and Treatment. The study lead by Lynn University Associate Professor Jill Levenson Ph.D. drew conclusions by analyzing more than 67,000 non-familial sex crimes against children ages 12 and under. The study also concluded that any Halloween policies adopted during the 1997 to 2005 time period "appear not to have impacted the overall offense rate."
"You need to look at who it is that commits the crimes," Bellucci said, "93 percent of people who commit the crimes are not on the register. They are family members, teachers, members of the clergy, coaches and unfortunately in this time Boy Scouts leaders."
She said the Halloween ordinances are missing the target.
"In some cases these regulations give people a false sense of security. They think 'Oh, I am going to let my kids go out on their own.'"
When her children were young enough to trick-or-treat, she said she always made sure they were accompanied out of fear they might get hit by vehicles on the road. That is a well-placed fear, according to the CDC, since children are four times more likely to be killed in a vehicle accident on Halloween night.
Nevertheless, Melfi said Girard will uphold its ordinance even if it had never had a past incident in the city - home to six registered sex offenders.
"We're not taking that chance. That is her concern defending her clients as an attorney, ours is keeping our children safe," he said. "I don't think it's done anything at this time, but it's made an awareness."