Last week, all Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) projects in Canada were informed by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) that their contracts would be terminated at the end of the current fiscal year, which in Canada means end of March 2014. The finality and implications of that decision are still being reviewed, but it is clear that CoSA funding in Canada is again under threat.
CoSA began in Southern Ontario in the summer of 1994, but it wasn’t called that then. Repeat child molester Charlie Taylor was being released from Warkworth Institution (a medium security federal penitentiary). Although most offenders receiving determinate sentences in Canada are eligible for conditional release (i.e., day parole, full parole, or statutory release at the two-thirds point) before the end of their sentences, it was not uncommon in those days for a high risk sexual offender to be detained by the National Parole Board. In such circumstances, the offender is held until the very end of his sentence (known in Canada as the Warrant Expiry Date, or WED). This is equivalent to the US experience of “maxing out”.
On the surface, the practice of detention appears to make sense. High risk sexual offenders who have refused treatment or have been otherwise problematic while incarcerated are held past their release eligibility dates, thereby delaying their release to the community until the last possible moment. But, when one looks a little deeper, the practice is fraught with potential pitfalls for the community. The Correctional Service of Canada provides an array of treatment and other reintegration services for sexual offenders on conditional release, including problem-solving skills training, substance abuse treatment, job search, and psychiatric services, among others. The key point in this, however, is the phrase “on conditional release”. Offenders released at the end of their sentences are not eligible for such reintegration assistance, on the basis that they are no longer under the umbrella of CSC or the federal government’s responsibilities for offender reintegration. This was the situation facing Charlie in 1994, and the many WED sexual offenders who have since followed.
Charlie’s release was an incident waiting to happen – a repeat sexual offender with dozens of prior victims released to the community with no formal aftercare or link to the community in any meaningful way. Understandably, the citizens of the city to which Charlie was released were incensed. However, prior to his release, efforts were undertaken to establish some aspect of social support for him, which was principally in the form of a group of volunteers from a local Mennonite church under the direction of the Rev. Harry Nigh. That small group of volunteers pioneered what we now know as Circles of Support and Accountability, a model of professionally supported volunteerism that has proliferated across Canada and into the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. There are presently over 30 individual CoSA projects worldwide, all based in part on the innovative model developed over the past 20 years in Canada. Indeed, US-based evaluability research has assessed projects in terms of how much fidelity they show to the original Canadian model.
Funding for CoSA projects in Canada has always been tenuous. When delegates from CSC and the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario (MCCO) traveled to Ottawa to discuss funding with then-Solicitor General Herb Gray in 1996, they were initially turned down. Mr. Gray asserted that the Government of Canada had no legal responsibility for providing services to offenders no longer serving sentences. However, he was persuaded that while no legal responsibility existed, there was a moral responsibility to assist in protecting citizens from harm that might be committed by known at-risk offenders. On that basis, a funding structure was established that has seen CoSA projects receive federal government funding over the ensuing 18 years. Once again, this funding relationship is under threat.
To be fair, the government (via CSC) may maintain some funding for CoSA projects; however, reports are that this funding will be limited to work with only certain types of offenders. Since Charlie’s WED release in 1994, Canada has legislatively attempted to address the problem of WED releases with no aftercare. At the time of sentencing, sexual offenders with prior histories and who present particular challenges may now be declared Long Term Offenders and have post-sentence periods of community supervision appended to their regular sentences, known as a Long Term Supervision Order (LTSO). LTSOs are managed by CSC and offenders may be supervised in a parole/probation hybrid for up to 10 years post-sentence. It appears that CSC is, at least in principle, okay with CoSA projects working with LTSO offenders, who are still under CSC’s risk management umbrella. The offenders they no longer want to support are those who didn’t get an LTSO at sentencing and who are therefore released at WED. It’s déjà vu all over again. The public has been clear for decades that they expect their communities to be safe and that they want the government to provide protections; as such, the continued policy of WED release with no provisions for support or accountability raises ethical as well as moral questions.
CoSA was founded as a grass roots, community based response to what amounted to a failure of the government to protect the people. High risk sexual offenders were being knowingly released into the community with no aftercare, no supervision, and no attempts at linking them to social supports or other risk management frameworks. Courageous citizens like Rev. Nigh and more than 750 socially conscious Canadians have since stepped up to the plate to help cover that risk, often without much in the way of thanks or accolades. Despite its clear legal responsibility for managing sexual offenders on LTSO, CSC seems to be looking to outsource a substantial portion of this work back to the community to whom it is accountable. However, CSC doesn’t appear willing to assist the community in managing the risk of offenders for whom they (CSC) are trying to divest responsibility. There’s an issue of fairness here.
Realistically, the only pats on the back CoSA volunteers ever get are from the offenders they help or via research published showing the successes of their efforts and the model. To date, four controlled studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the model have been published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals (one of which was founded in Canada). Two of these studies are from Canada (1 and 2), the others coming from the UK and the USA. All four studies show the same outcome – dramatically different rates of sexual and other reoffending in groups of CoSA participants when compared to matched or randomly assigned samples who did not participate in a CoSA. These findings have been encouraging enough for the US federal government to support CoSA project development in various places in the US; the same being the case in the UK and ever more so in other international jurisdictions. Even behind the scenes, the most skeptical researchers have been impressed by CoSA findings.
Yet, in defending their decision to defund CoSA in Canada, CSC officials have declared CoSA research to be seriously flawed (surprisingly, two of these studies were originally published by CSC’s own Research Branch). To be truthful, there is something to this assessment. Four studies with small sample sizes and relatively short follow-up times – there is clearly a need for more research before we can definitively declare CoSA to be a truly evidence based initiative. Of course, virtually all scientific studies have flaws. But, really, the evidence comes from researchers in three different countries, all of whom found the same thing. Further, the decision to defund CoSA comes as Canada wraps up its participation in a 5-year national demonstration project funded by the National Crime Prevention Center, a federal agency affiliated with Public Safety Canada, ostensibly the same government ministry that wants to cut the funding. What’s the rush? Why not wait and see what the ongoing national research project finds?
In many ways, attacking the CoSA research base is disingenuous. This can be seen as a standard governmental and corporate tactic employed when one wants to close down something that touts empirical research as a basis for its existence. The great Canadian criminologist Paul Gendreau warns us of this sort of thing in his many publications regarding correctional quackery and “fart-catching”. Such attempts to selectively dismiss or promote research findings can also be seen as “ideologically and professionally convenient” (Andrews & Wormith, 1989):
"Knowledge destruction" refers to the uncritical acceptance of null findings, while findings of covariation are contaminated or dismissed through the mere suggestion of errors of conceptualization or measurement (Gottfredson 1979). "Knowledge construction" involves exploring the implications of identified threats to the validity of research-based conclusions and recognizing that the effect of threats is not always the production of inflated estimates of validity. Rather, "threats to validity" sometimes may have the effect of masking covariation or producing underestimates of the magnitude of covariation. In summary, an objective of the psychology of crime is to understand personal covariates of criminal activity, whereas an objective of major portions of mainstream criminology is to discredit such an understanding.
The current government in Canada remains convinced that it must implement criminal justice reforms that are, as a group, poorly supported by research. Mandatory minimum sentences, efforts to limit or deny conditional release, longer sentences for sexual offenders, and other get-tough-on-crime measures, which the government calls their “Safer Streets and Communities Act,” have been or are about to be implemented in Canada in the near future. Some of these changes are already being challenged – some successfully – in the courts. It is disquieting that the current government agenda is at times diametrically opposed to findings in decades of peer-reviewed research, most of it published by Canadians funded or working directly for the same government agencies that now seek to ignore those findings. As one volunteer observer commented after hearing of the impending defunding of CoSA, “My first reaction to this news is that communities are less safe this week than they were last week.”
To summarize, the Correctional Service of Canada (on the recommendations of the National Parole Board) used to release high risk sexual offenders into the community without aftercare or other follow-up services. This forced community members to take matters into their own hands through development of grass roots projects intended to provide support for offenders while ensuring a means by which offenders can be accountable for their behavior once released. Convinced that a moral responsibility existed to assist these community volunteers in their efforts, government funding has been provided to established CoSA projects coast to coast in Canada for nearly 20 years. This partnership in risk management between the correctional service and the community has become a best practice model for jurisdictions worldwide. Now, the Government of Canada seeks to cease that partnership in risk management with the community, one end result being that vulnerable citizens will be at increased risk for harm from offenders the government was so concerned about that those offenders were detained until the very last day of their sentences. This situation will no doubt be exacerbated by the fact that the government plans to spend millions of dollars on get-tough-on-crime measures that a quick review of the science will reveal are unlikely to work, while defunding an initiative that many people internationally are convinced is exactly the sort of approach most likely to work. Ultimately, the Government of Canada’s plan amounts to bad policy based on ignoring good science. And, given Canada's prominence in the "what works with offenders" world – including sexual offenders – that’s a shame.
Robin J. Wilson, Ph.D., ABPP
Wilson Psychological Services LLC, Sarasota, FL
McMaster University, Hamilton, ON
Andrews, D.A. & Wormith, J.S. (1989). Personality and crime: Knowledge destruction and construction in criminology. Justice Quarterly, 6, 289-309.
Bates, A., Williams, D., Wilson, C., & Wilson, R.J. (2013). Circles South-East: The first ten years 2002-2012. Published online first April 24, 2013, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. doi:10.1177/0306624X13485362
Duwe, G. (2012). Can Circles of Support and Accountability work in the United States? Preliminary results from a randomized experiment in Minnesota. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. 24, 1-23.
Elliott, I.A., Zajac, G., & Meyer, C.A. (2013). Evaluability assessments of the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) model: Cross-site report. Washington, DC: Department of Justice.
Gendreau, P. (2009). Chaos theory and correctional treatment: Common sense, correctional quackery, and the law of fartcatchers. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 25, 384-396.
Wilson, R.J., Cortoni, F., & McWhinnie, A.J. (2009). Circles of Support & Accountability: A Canadian national replication of outcome findings. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 21, 412-430.
Wilson, R.J., Cortoni, F., Picheca, J.E., Stirpe, T.S., & Nunes, K. (2009). Community-based sexual offender maintenance treatment programming: An evaluation. [Research Report R-188] Ottawa, ON: Correctional Service of Canada.
Wilson, R.J., Cortoni, F., & Vermani, M. (2007). Circles of Support & Accountability: A national replication of outcome findings. [Research Report R-185] Ottawa, ON: Correctional Service of Canada.
Wilson, R.J., Picheca, J.E., & Prinzo, M. (2005). Circles of Support & Accountability: An evaluation of the pilot project in South-Central Ontario. [Research Report R-168] Ottawa, ON: Correctional Service of Canada.
Wilson, R.J., Picheca, J.E., & Prinzo, M. (2007). Evaluating the effectiveness of professionally-facilitated volunteerism in the community-based management of high risk sexual offenders: Part two—A comparison of recidivism rates. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 46, 327-337.