By Galen Eagle
UPDATE: Prison service reverses funding cut to sex-offender program
Those who keep a tight watch on sex offenders in Peterborough while providing supports to ensure they don’t re-offend say they’ll no longer be equipped to do their jobs come September.
Dan Haley has been overseeing Peterborough’s Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) for 20 years. It’s a program in which regular citizens, supported by local professionals, volunteer their time to accompany high-risk sex offenders as they re-integrate from prison life back into the community.
Public Safety Canada has been funding the programs in 18 communities across Canada as part of a five-year project, but that funding is set to expire in September.
In Peterborough, that will leave some 17 sex offenders without the supports they have come to depend upon, Haley said.
“This program works and for the federal government to just pull the plug, our communities aren’t safe,” he said. “This means we are going to have sex offenders that have no support. Can you imagine if they had absolutely nobody working with them, no supports, no accountability whatsoever?”
The program in Peterborough has a near perfect record. Haley could only recall a single client who committed a crime while under his watch and no client has ever re-offended sexually in the past 20 years, he said.
It requires a fleet of nearly 100 volunteers, an average of five volunteers per offender, to keep the circles functioning locally. The Parole Board of Canada holds many high-risk sexual offenders beyond their statutory release date to the very last date of their sentence. That means such offenders are typically released back into society without access to follow-up services or support and without the need to abide by any parole conditions.
“We have a 20-year history in working in this field. Our numbers are really good. Nobody has re-offended sexually,” he said.
Combined, the programs across Canada have proven to be highly effective at reducing recidivism rates of high-risk sexual offenders, Haley said.
“It’ll be devastating across the country. This is about keeping our communities safe. As long as we are going to be releasing people into the community, there needs to be checks and balances,” he said.
Haley’s group receives about $91,000 annually in federal funding to run the program, he said.
Public Safety Canada did not respond to a request for an interview but did provide some background information in an email.
The National Crime Prevention Strategy, which funded the Circles of Support and Accountability project, offers programs that are time-limited designed to determine what programs are effective and cost-efficient interventions, Public Safety Canada said.
From the outset, all partners are made aware that funding is time limited, and in order to continue, alternative funding sources would need to be found, Public Safety Canada said.
The Circles of Support and Accountability project began in fall 2009 and is scheduled to end on Sept. 30. Public Safety Canada contributed a total of $7,412,971 to the project which “demonstrates the government’s commitment to preventing crime and making Canadian streets safe,” it stated in the email.
The expiration of the COSA funding comes as the Conservative government promises to get tougher on sexual offenders before the courts.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay tabled a bill in the House of Commons on Wednesday that would toughen mandatory minimum and maximum jail sentences for a range of sexual offences against children, toughen penalties for repeat offenders who breach probation or court orders and require offenders who harm multiple victims to serve prison terms consecutively.
City police Staff Sgt. Lynne Buehler said the loss of Peterborough’s Circles of Support and Accountability would be a huge blow to the community.
“It’s a pretty major loss to our community. They provide an excellent service helping offenders reintegrate into our community and provide them with support that isn’t offered anywhere else,” she said. “They work very closely with us and provide that supervision that is just going to be lost without the funding.”