How Pokémon Go got turned into a threat

By Lenore Skenazy

Our governor wants us to panic about a problem that does not exist: Sex offenders preying on kids playing Pokemon Go.

About a week ago, state Sens. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) and Diane Savino (D-Coney Island) proposed legislation banning Level 2 and 3 sex offenders from playing the popular new phone game. The senators also demanded that the game’s developers eliminate any Pokemon within 100 feet of the home of a registered sex offender.

Not to be outdone, Gov. Cuomo jumped on the Poke-wagon 48 hours later to make an even tougher, first-in-the-nation law: From now on, even a Tier 1 Sex Offender found playing Pokemon while on parole could end up in prison. That means that if you happened to be an 18-year-old who got a sext from your 16-year-old girlfriend, and this got you labeled a low-level sex offender (which is already crazy), you could play a game on your phone and end up in prison.

It should be noted here that Pokemon is more like solitaire than poker. As you walk along, cartoon creatures suddenly appear on your phone. You “catch” them by tapping the screen.

Now, I realize that anytime a politician mentions new and harsher sex offender restrictions, many voters cheer. That is why politicians keep proposing them.

But these laws will not make our children safer, because they are based on the incorrect idea that registered sex offenders pose a big threat to kids.

They do—on “Law & Order,” because that makes for an exciting plot line: The creep outside the playground, preparing to pounce, or the criminal mastermind online, stalking children by decoding their posts. But in real life, which is as horrifying as it is mundane, the vast majority of sex abuse occurs at the hands of someone in the child’s life: a relative, family friend, or other trusted adult.

“Stranger danger” sounds like a huge threat, but the FBI stats on children abducted for nefarious purposes show exactly what percent were snatched by registered sex offenders?

In 2009: Zero.

And in 2010, it was less than 1 percent. Even the group that put the missing kids’ pictures on the milk cartons, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has labeled stranger danger a “myth we have been trying to debunk.”

What’s hard to believe or even understand is that registered sex offenders pose very little threat to children. A study of Washington, D.C. neighborhoods compared blocks with registrants on them to those without and found no difference in the number of sex crimes committed.

That’s because even though we have heard that people on the registry are insatiable child molesters, the surprising truth is that they have a very low level of recidivism, which is lower than any other criminals other than murderers.

So the sex offender registry itself is a failed idea, a way of labeling hundreds of thousands of people who are, for the most part, not going to hurt anyone, much less a stranger. In fact, my guess is that you probably know someone — a friend or a friend of a friend — who is on the registry, even though you know they aren’t a threat to anyone.

Add to this the idea that registrants are going to use Pokemon as predator helper and you have created a fantastical scenario that would be a great plot point for a Liam Neeson movie — or maybe The Simpsons.

But making legislation based on that fantasy is worse than mere grandstanding. Far from reassuring parents, it scares them even more by making it sound as if our kids are in constant danger the second they step outside.

These laws ignore the wonderful fact that, in fact, it is the opposite: Kids today are safer today than they’ve been in 50 years. (And it isn’t just because they’re “helicoptered.” Adults are safer today, too, and we don’t helicopter them.) Crime is back to the level it was in 1963. The real danger kids face is in not going outside. Obesity and diabetes are on the rise, not child rape.

Making it seem as if registered sex offenders are constantly on the prowl for tots and only harsh new laws can save them is a lie. The new legislation is pointless. Gov. Cuomo, and Sens. Klein and Savino are guilty of a new political crime: Fear-pokemongering.

Lenore Skenazy is author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

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