Mall Santas: Nice or naughty?

California legislator supports increased employment restrictions for convicted sex offenders.

Published June 21, 2006 6:33PM (EDT)

"Sex Offenders Working as Mall Santas." It's a headline you might see on a slow news day at the Onion. Today, however, it's the really rather yellowish title of an article at KGO-TV, the San Francisco-area ABC affiliate. The piece is not about any sort of discovery that convicted sex offenders are legally hoisting children onto their laps, but rather about the possibility that they could be. Apparently, current California law does not require convicted sex offenders to disclose their status to potential employers if a given job -- as Santa, say, or a carnival worker -- will put them in contact with children only under the supervision of parents.

"My heart is beating very rapidly. That's very upsetting," said Cheryl MacGuidwin, identified in the article as a "concerned mother."

Why is KGO-TV freaking people out about this now, when they should be busy alarming parents about the dangers of picnic germs and shallow-end drowning? Because California state Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, has sponsored a bill that would require such applicants to disclose their status no matter what. "We don't want you in that job, period," said Spitzer, who recently staged a press conference featuring actors dressed as Santas with signs reading, "I'm a child rapist" and "I collect child pornography." Spitzer filed the bill in response to a local CBS affiliate's investigation, in which actors applied for Santa jobs using the names of registered sex offenders. They were hired.

Spitzer's proposal passed the Assembly last month. The state Senate Public Safety Committee took up debate yesterday.

The bill's detractors are not necessarily pro-sex offender Santas. They believe, however, in rehabilitation, and say that that's where the state should focus. "Laws already tell sex offenders where they can live and work; opponents feel restrictions on what kind of work [they may do] might send them over the edge," said the article. As Matt Gray of Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety added, "It's an assured way of making certain that these people actually say, 'forget the system' and continue on a criminal lifestyle."

Seems to me, maternal-instinctively, that some sort of restrictions in this area do make sense -- restrictions that strike a balance between protecting civil liberties on the one hand and children on the other. But the cheap showboating and "What if?!" fear-mongering elements of the public discussion creep me out almost as much as the notion of an innocent kid gazing dreamily into the jolly face of a felon.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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