- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland officials, who say child molestation is no laughing matter, have backed off a plan requiring convicted sex offenders to hang pumpkin signs on their doors on Halloween after the program became the butt of late-night television jokes.

The bright orange signs, reading, “No candy at this residence,” in all capital letters, were sent to the state’s 1,200 violent and child sex offenders earlier this month along with instructions that they must post them on their front doors on Friday evening.

But the plan became fodder for television comics ranging from Jay Leno to the “Saturday Night Live” cast after details were reported Oct. 15 by The Washington Times.

“Sex offenders in Maryland are now required to post signs that read, ‘No candy at this residence,’ on Halloween or face a possible parole violation,” Seth Meyers deadpanned on the ‘Weekend Update’ part of NBC’s long-running Saturday night program. “They are also being required to take down the signs that read, ‘Knock if you can keep a special secret.’”

Maryland parole agents said they were ordered this week to replace the pumpkin-shaped signs with simple pumpkin-free signs that bear the same message. However, a state official said Wednesday that the new signs are only an “option” for agents to give to sex offenders who might not want to display a pumpkin.

“I don’t see it as an admission that the signs don’t work, or the signs aren’t good,” said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Mr. Binetti said he saw the “Saturday Night Live” skit but that the national ribbing hadn’t driven the department’s decision to veer away from the pumpkin signs.

Nevertheless, others have been poking fun at the program, including a local songwriter who submitted a tune about the signs to the local blog DCist.com.

“Really, a pumpkin? That’s the best you can do?” Mr. Leno asked in his opening monologue Oct. 16 on “The Tonight Show.” “How about a big sign that says, ‘Sex offender lives here.’”

Despite the jokes, parole agents said the monitoring of sex offenders is serious business.

“Some of these offenders should be hooked up to GPS tracking,” said Raimund Douglas, president of Local 3661 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the state’s parole agents. “When we’re talking about our kids, that’s the most important issue to me. We need to protect our kids.”

Sex offenders in Maryland who do not post the signs and stay home will be taken to court and charged with a violation of parole. However, the state initiative is not a law.

A federal judge Tuesday temporarily blocked part of a Missouri law requiring sex offenders to stay in their homes on Halloween, after four convicted sex offenders and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit.

In 2005, Maryland began requiring sex offenders in Baltimore to stay inside their homes on Halloween. Last year, the program was expanded statewide and offenders were tracked by parole agents and given a simple sign to hang on their doors that read: “No Candy.”

Maryland’s new regulations are almost identical to those adopted in Missouri this year, particularly the instructions to post the sign and stay at home.

Louisiana lawmakers this year barred convicted sex offenders from wearing masks on Halloween or during the state’s carnival season.

Other states, including New Jersey and Texas, have begun tracking sex offenders at Halloween over the past five years.

Maryland also this year is distributing pamphlets statewide to warn families and trick-or-treaters to stay away from homes with the pumpkin signs.

Maryland sex offenders are tracked by an online database, listed in the state sex-offender registry and ordered to comply with the Halloween program for varying times - from a lifetime for violent and child sex offenses to 10 years for lesser sex crimes.

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