By David. S. Prescott, LICSW, McCartan, K. f., PhD, & Kasia Uzieblo, PhD
Two news items caught our attention this week.
The first is an article published this month by The Lawyer’s Daily in Canada. It describes how Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) has been defunded over time in Canada. One of the better-researched approaches to reducing re-offense, especially among high-risk individuals re-entering the community from prison. Ironically, CoSA began in Canada; the story of its origins is inspiring. However, as the article notes:
funded by the government of Canada for 15 years starting in 2000. Its annual
budget has never exceeded $2 million, compared to the $5 billion Canadian
governments spend each year on jails and prisons. Moreover, the public and
private costs of a single serious sexual assault have been estimated by Public
Safety Canada as being several hundred thousand dollars.
Despite this, funding for CoSA was terminated by the Harper government in 2015. In 2017 the federal government again provided funding of about $1.5 million per year to support 15 sites across the country that provided circles for approximately 300 people with sex offence convictions.
This funding expired in March 2022 and has not been renewed. As a result, all four CoSA sites in Atlantic Canada and Quebec have been forced to go on hiatus and three sites in Saskatchewan have cut back programming. Our sites in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Ontario are preparing for reduction or closure if sustainable funding is not secured in the next six months.
The international research evidence supporting CoSA is good. A quick glance at the finances above shows just how cost-effective it can be in helping Core Members successfully integrate into society and learn to manage their desistance journeys, and therefore risk of reoffending. The evidence for keeping people in prison until their mandatory release date is very poor, and the high financial costs of incarceration are well known, as well as its absence of a meaningful return on investment.
All this leads one to wonder what drives politicians, governments, and policymakers to de-funding CoSA? With the governments of countries like Australia, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, and New Zealand looking to establish, expand or revive CoSA programs, why is the Canadian government pulling its support? Is this about public outrage, a significant re-offense problem, a high-profile case, media outcry, or the impact of tightening public spending? This has been on the books for a while and we in the international community had heard rumors of further de-funding as far back as 2020. It certainly appears to be more ideologically than research-driven, which is always an ever-present challenge in the reality of sexual abuse policy practice.
On the other hand, the question remains of which ideology is driving this? Is society more invested in punishment than in doing what we can to prevent re-offense? Or are politicians, and to a degree policy makers, giving the people what they think they might want? With the growing recognition that offending behavior is linked to a range of social, economic, health, and wellbeing outcomes, shouldn’t we ensure that programs (like CoSA), which are grounded in this knowledge don’t fall by the wayside in traditional criminal justice debates that have become outdated?
Elsewhere in Canada, which has certainly been a world leader in producing knowledge and practice approaches, a judge in Newfoundland and Labrador relied on rape myths to acquit a teenager on charges that he had sexually assaulted a 15-year-old friend. Despite her overt attempts to fight back and stop the assault, the judge apparently indicated a belief that the young woman could have stopped the assault. From the article:
“The trial judge said if the complainant had been telling the truth, she could have simply left the house when the boy asked her to find a condom, and also suggested she may have been upset due to the "thoughtless and callous manner" the boy left her house.
"[The complainant] did not take the opportunity to leave the situation when she says it was offered to her.… There is no plausible explanation as to why she just did not leave the house and seek help," the trial judge said.
"The impermissible myth — a woman can prevent a rape if she really wants to — was part of the judge's foundation in rejecting this testimony from the complainant," the appeal decision said.
It is by no means the first time a judge’s leniency has created backlash. Many readers will remember the Brock Turner case at Stanford University; the judge in that case faced a recall vote and was forced to ask not to hear any more criminal cases. Also, internationally in the UK this week, a barrister at a private family hearing in Belfast stated that a judge had suggested that “only stupid women can be raped.”
What puzzles us, however, is the trend away from using knowledge that has been well-known for decades and has been the subject of very considerable media attention, and not simply during the #metoo movement years. However, these cases, over many years, highlight that legal professionals need additional training in respect to rape and sexual assault. This is urgent given the volume of cases resulting in a conviction is dropping, especially in the UK with calls for specialist rape courts to be established. But if judges and lawyers are not trained to understand the reality of sexual abuse and its impact, then how can they be expected to challenge rape myths? The real myth here as that our knowledge base automatically updates as society evolves and grows. We need to give people the skills and knowledge to make informed, professional decisions. In addition, we must also recognize that training will be insufficient for some since their attitudes and beliefs are so intractable that they are difficult or even impossible to change. For such cases, we also need to find an answer.
The two cases that we have discussed this week may be rooted in Canada but as we have seen, they are not dissimilar to cases and policies internationally. We need to remind ourselves that social change takes time, and we all need to be involved. These cases also reinforce the need for us to lead in and have pro-social, educated, and engaged conversations on changing attitudes as well as practices around sexual abuse.