The high cost of failure to rehabilitate sex-offenders

No one wants a sex offender living in their neighbourhood because they are a menace to society. The assumption is that they are incurable; that their impulses are so strong that they are certain to reoffend. But what if that assumption is wrong?

From website of Circles of Support and Accountability

From website of Circles of Support and Accountability

If offenders could be rehabilitated, communities would be safer but it would take a change in policy. The policies of the Harper government ensure that communities remain endangered.

The “tough on crime” policies of the Dark Decade meant government-legislated mandatory minimum sentences, capped incarceration credit for pre-sentence custody, limited parole eligibility, and plans to build more prisons to house pot-smokers,  mentally ill, and aboriginals –a plan that the U.S. advised against as I outlined in an earlier column (November, 2011).

Jonathan Kay, editor of Walrus magazine, says that there was eventually pushback even from conservatives. “Harper’s attitude toward criminals was so callous that even many Tory diehards began to push back (September, 2016). Kay quotes a conservative columnist regarding the closure of the prison-farm system. “When queried on the evidence for such measures or a broader philosophy of the role of incarceration in the criminal justice system, the justice department offers little more than slogans.”

Fortunately, rehabilitation is more than a slogan; it’s a plan. The prison-farm system is part of that plan because it provides education, vocational guidance and vital skills on how to improve the lives of prisoners and integrate them back into society.

The Liberal government plans to reopen prison farms on an “evidence based” approach. Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould has been instructed to review the justice system with a view to “increasing the safety of our communities, getting value for money, addressing the gaps and ensuring that current provisions are aligned with objectives of the criminal-justice system.”

Notice the difference? Safer communities does not mean just punishing prisoners but ensuring that when they get out that they are less likely to cause harm. The change in focus is from punishing offenders to securing society. Other than the visceral pleasure of revenge, punishment is no plan at all.

Another useful program that the Tories stopped funding was the Circles of Support and Accountability. This volunteer-run group was founded by Mennonites in 1994 and has proven results in keeping sex-offenders and pedophiles from reoffending. Studies suggest that they can reduce recidivism of sex offenders by as much as 70 per cent.

No wonder that the model of CoSA has been adopted by the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, and some European counties. Volunteers help men deal with landlords, stay sober, access food banks, and obtain government ID. More importantly, they help men avoid the triggers that that cause them to reoffend; help them deal with their guilt, shame, loneliness, and anger towards others. They are often the victims of abuse themselves.

This is not coddling the sickos, as avengers claim. This is protecting society. The CoSA program is not only effective; it’s cheaper than re-incarceration.


Stephen Harper’s gift to Canada

It’s not what he intended but former Prime Minister Harper has emboldened Canada’s Supreme Court and strengthened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


Harper set out to remake Canada in his own image; a conservative unlike any Canada has seen before. Certainly not like the Progressive Conservative party that his amalgamation consumed; one based the libertarian principles Harper learned from his American professors at the University of Calgary.

Harper considered the Charter, introduced in by Pierre Trudeau in 1982, to be an artifice. But to Harper’s chagrin, the legacy of his nemesis has been strengthened.

It’s not for lack of trying. Harper tried to subvert the Charter by passing contrary laws.  Looking to emulate the U.S. system of making political appointments, he tried to stack the Supreme Court to support his subversion. That backfired as the judges he had appointed struck down laws he had passed, such as those on mandatory jail terms or illegal drugs.

Another approach was to kill of the Charter by a thousand cuts. In changing the law incrementally, he imaged that lots of small increments would add up to big change. Sean Fine, justice reporter for the Globe and Mail explains:

“On murder, he took away the ‘faint-hope clause’ that allowed for parole after 15 years instead of 25. Then he permitted the 25-year waiting period for a parole hearing to be added up in cases of multiple murders – 25 years on each murder. And then he promised life in prison with no parole for especially brutal murders.”

Harper tried to shut down the safe-injection clinic in Vancouver, Insite, where drug users could inject heroin with a nurse present, The Supreme Court ruled that shutting the clinic would severely harm, perhaps kill, drug addicts.

The Supreme Court ruling had the unintended consequence of making it harder for the Harper government to limit the rights of the vulnerable. Undeterred, Harper pressed ahead with prostitution laws, which the court unanimously ruled against decreeing that the laws endangered prostitutes.

More consequences of this legacy played out when the city of Abbotsford attempted to keep homeless people from sleeping in parks by spreading chicken manure.

“B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson, a Harper appointee, ruled for the homeless and against the city. Government should not cause physical or psychological harm to a vulnerable population, he said, citing the Insite ruling.”

Ghosts of a strengthened Supreme Court and the Charter brought in by Pierre Trudeau will haunt the son. Rulings have reduced the ability of all governments to impinge on rights.

Solitary confinement in federal prisons is being challenged based on the Insite ruling. If Justin Trudeau’s new Minister of Justice, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, attempts to defend the status quo, she could find herself taking a position on basic Charter rights similar to that taken by the Harper government.

“The result could be a supreme irony: Unless she moves quickly – on refugee health cuts, on mandatory jail sentences that fall most heavily on aboriginal peoples, on a spate of laws that reduce judges’ discretion – the Trudeau government will find that its justice-department lawyers are in court defending Harper-era policies whose goal was to remove perceived liberal bias from the justice system.”