Monday, March 9, 2015

A false sense of safety: The federal government's ineffective approach to reducing sexual harm

by Adina Ilea, PhD Candidate, Criminology, University of Ottawa

Sadly there are truly evil people out there. 
The fact is we don’t understand them and we don’t particularly care to. 
We understand only that they must be dealt with. 

How do you work towards a solution for a problem that you don’t even care to understand? The statement above by Prime Minister Stephen Harper flies in the face of those who have spent their careers trying to understand the causes, characteristics, and solutions to sexual harm. During the 1990s, Canada was considered a leader in research on sexual offending. Correctional Services Canada commissioned numerous research studies and implemented treatment practices in its institutions. Communities of concerned citizens developed reintegration programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), which have not only been proven successful in reducing re-offence rates, but have also been replicated all over the world.  While it is claimed that the public maintains the opinion that "once a sex offender, always a sex offender", research shows that they have lower re-offence rates than is generally believed, especially when they have participated in treatment.

Through the Safe Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10), the Harper government has increased mandatory minimum sentences for sex offences and has removed the opportunity of those convicted of sex offences to receive a pardon even though research by Public Safety Canada shows that the latter was an unnecessary measure in terms of making our communities safer. The federal government has now tabled the Tougher Penalties for Child Predators Act (Bill C-26), which seeks to make amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada, including, increasing mandatory minimum sentences for sex offences against children and enacting a publicly accessible sex offender database.

Increasing mandatory minimum sentences for sexual offences may seem, at first glance, to benefit victims and make our communities safer. That, however, is not the case. More than 90% of those incarcerated re-join our communities. Will longer sentences magically transform them into better neighbours, friends or family members? Or will they become more institutionalized, experience more trauma, and come out more broken than when they went in?  We may believe that while they are incarcerated these individuals will take part in treatment and get better. That is not always the case. Institutional programming is not available to all prisoners. Additionally, professionals in the field and persons in conflict with the law who the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project has been in touch with note that cuts to psychological services have resulted in programs being delivered by prison officers instead of by psychologists.

A publicly accessible sex offender registry, another amendment proposed by Bill C-26, will make our communities less, not more safe. We already have the National Sex Offender Registry and provincial registries, neither of which are publicly accessible. While the effectiveness of these non-public registries has been criticized, police use these as investigative tools. However, these measures are only as good as the information they contain. Because these registries are not public, their compliance rates are very high (in Ontario, the rate is 97%). This means that almost all persons on the registry regularly update their residence and work addresses and any other identifying information with the police. Compare that with the rates of approximately 50% in U.S. jurisdictions where registries are public. In those areas, up to half of those convicted of sexual harm who are required to be on the registry are missing, their whereabouts unknown to police services. Going underground means that these people are less likely to access treatment services, seek and maintain employment, and remain close to social supports – all factors that decrease one’s risk of re-offending.

We already have numerous measures for the supervision and control of those who are convicted of sexual offences: the dangerous offender designation, long-term supervision order, peace bond (s.810 orders), community notification and the abovementioned sex offender registries. These mechanisms, in conjunction with community-based treatment (e.g. those offered at the Royal Ottawa Hospital) and low-cost but effective reintegration services (e.g. CoSA) offer a myriad of interventions for those who have been convicted of sexual offences. Longer sentences and a publicly accessible registry will not help victims come forward.  On the contrary, considering that most perpetrators are known to the victim – either as family members or friends/acquaintances – these measures will deter victims from seeking the help of police. Would you want your family name on a publicly accessible registry? 

Those who work with survivors of criminalized harm question the government’s approach and are in support of initiatives like CoSA.  Understanding the difference between policies based on fear and stereotypes and those based on sound research and practices allows us to put our resources where they can truly be effective. When the annual cost of incarcerating one male prisoner is $117 788, does keeping people in prison longer make any sense?

If this government is truly concerned with victims’ rights and community safety, it would fund programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability, whose effectiveness has been proven. Instead, many CoSA sites, such as the one in Ottawa, is in danger of closing its doors and the people it serves will be left without the daily support and oversight its volunteers and staff provide. 


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