My first Halloween experience was when I was 12 years old. As a recently arrived immigrant to the United States, Halloween was a uniquely American experience for me and it was thrilling to discover haunted houses, carved pumpkins, and elaborate costumes. I still remember staying up late on Halloween and trading candy with my siblings after trick-or-treating. Today, I feel like I am a pro at Halloween, I have a collection of cute decorations, I create jack-o-lanterns, I plan my kids’ costumes, and I make sure my house has the best candy on the block. As an adult, I still appreciate the innocent Halloween fun, but I am also aware of the public safety challenges this celebration can pose. This includes keeping kids safe as they explore en masse, protecting pedestrians and drivers, and preventing intentional mischief that could result in serious harm.
Earlier this month I viewed the live stream of Reimagining Prison, an event hosted by Vera Institute of Justice and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While this event was going on, I came across some news about a newly passed city ordinance in Chesapeake, Virginia that criminalizes trick-or-treat activities for children over the age of 12 and for all children after 8:00 p.m. at night. As I listened to panelists at the Reimagining Prison sessions, my thoughts kept coming back to this ordinance. The United States has the world’s largest prison population and we have seen the vast collateral consequences of incarceration for both juveniles and adults. Policymakers, researchers, and community action groups are working to reverse the tide and develop strategies to decrease mass incarceration at the local and federal levels. The trick-or-treat ordinance in Chesapeake seems to embody the mass incarceration mindset: reflexively relying on criminalization and consequently incarceration to regulate behavior, instead of community interventions.
(a) If any person over the age of 12 years shall engage in the activity commonly known as “trick or treat” or any other activity of similar character or nature under any name whatsoever, he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not less than $25.00 nor more than $100.00 or by confinement in jail for not more than six months or both
(b) If any person shall engage in the activity commonly known as “trick or treat” or any other activity of similar character or nature under any name whatsoever after 8:00 p.m., he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not less than $10.00 nor more than $100.00 or by confinement in jail for not more than 30 days or both.
(Code 1970, § 17-13.1; Ord. of 10-26-70)
Instead of punitive ordinances, possible solutions to these public safety issues on Halloween could include educational campaigns about safe behavior during trick-or-treating, outreach to parents and community members on providing supervision and being a positive role model, and partnering with schools and educators on delivering a positive behavior message to trick-or-treaters. The city of Chesapeake’s website states, “Chesapeake Police staff will focus on making sure the evening is safe for everyone, not actively seeking out violations of the time or age limits. For example, a thirteen-year-old safely trick or treating with a younger sibling is not going to have any issues. That same child taking pumpkins from porches and smashing them in the street more likely will.” This interpretation of the ordinance provides some clarification and intent, however, it’s unclear whether the community is aware of any of this.
My message for:
Cities facing similar situations: Consider alternative options to criminalization and avoid fines or confinement for juveniles.
Public safety officers: I commend and thank you for working tirelessly in ensuring Halloween stays fun for kids everywhere.
Parents and community members: Help keep kids safe during Halloween and Check out Safe Kids Worldwide’s HALLOWEEN SAFETY: A NATIONAL SURVEY OF PARENTS’ KNOWLEDGE, ATTITUDES, AND BEHAVIORS