When a high-risk, low functioning repeat child abuser was released from prison in the Hamilton area in 1994, many locals responded with predictable revulsion. Mennonite pastor Harry Nigh was not among them. He gathered a small group of people who reached out to the man. They offered support and accountability. The man never reoffended.
That later turned into 16 Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) organizations across Canada, and similar initiatives in nine other countries. The CoSA model matches released high-risk sex offenders with three to five volunteers — often from the faith community — who generally meet weekly to offer support, friendship and accountability.
A recently released report shows that CoSA has been effective in working toward its motto: “No more victims.” The federally funded report found that sexual re-offences among CoSA participants were two per cent over three years following release, compared to 28 per cent among similar populations not enrolled in the program. The study calculated that the cost of preventing a repeat sexual assault within the CoSA context was $53,000. The societal cost of a sexual assault was calculated at $240,000. The bottom line conclusion is that CoSA reduces sexual offences, improves public safety and ultimately saves money.
Despite that, federal funding for CoSA was cut as of March 31, with the exception of a previously signed contract specific to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario.
Over the years, CoSA had received funding from Correctional Services Canada (CSC) since 1996 and more recently from Public Safety Canada as well. The Public Safety funding came in the form of a $7.5 million Demonstration Project that involved 13 CoSA sites from 2009 to 2014. The funding allowed for significant expansion of CoSA services. Despite the fact that the recent study documented the effectiveness of the Demonstration Project, Public Safety has not provided any followup funding. As a result CoSA staff capacity across the country dropped by about a third, according to David Byrne who speaks for CoSA Canada.
Public Safety spokesperson Josée Sirois said “the (CoSA) project evaluation results will be used to inform future direction and evidence-based approaches regarding crime prevention and impacts on recidivism rates,” but the department is not considering provision of further funding for CoSA at this time.
The other source of funding has been CSC, which is a separate government department. In recent years, CSC support has involved about $650,000 per year in core funding for the various CoSA sites. Over half of that funding stopped on March 31. The other $325,000 is a previously signed five-year contract with MCC Ontario for its CoSA programs. That funding extends until 2018 and MCC has been told it will not continue beyond that.
In response to questions about the funding cuts, CSC spokesperson Sara Parkes said “a significant portion of CoSA activity . . . falls outside of CSC’s formal mandate.”
If someone receives a 10-year sentence, CSC is only technically responsible for that person for those 10 years. If the person is let out on parole after eight years, CSC will still fund certain programs for the two years of parole, but does not technically have responsibilities beyond that, though for nearly 20 years CSC worked around that.
CoSA is specifically intended for people who never get parole, due to the high risk to reoffend, and are then released from jail at the end of their sentence without the supervision and supports that would have been in place had they received parole. This increases their chances of re-offending — thus the crucial role of CoSA.
According to an email from Parkes, “the management and safe reintegration of sex offenders into the community is a high priority for CSC,” but she gave no indication that CSC would reconsider its decision to cut funding to CoSA. Instead, she said CSC “strongly encourages its partners” to consider alternate sources of funding.
Byrne says two CoSA sites will likely have to close immediately after the March cuts, and only a handful are likely to survive into 2016 unless core funding is found. These changes “create a less safe environment for everybody,” he says.
Meanwhile, the federal government is pushing hard on public safety initiatives that emphasize punishment, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s March announcement of a “life means life” law, that would deny people serving a life sentence any chance of parole except through an appeal to the federal cabinet.
A spokesperson for Stephen Blaney, the minister responsible for both Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the government “believes that dangerous sex offenders belong behind bars” while also believing that “those who have an interest in rehabilitating themselves should have support.” With respect to CoSA, he said, “funding for this particular program has run its course, but we are always interested in partnering with other programs in the future.”
Robin Wilson — a long time researcher of CoSA programs, leading promoter of CoSA in the U.S., and former CSC psychologist — says the current government seems to have forgotten the world class Canadian research that has shown conclusively that “more punishment does not equal less crime.” He says other countries used to emulate Canada’s approach to criminal justice programs and now Canada seems to be emulating the U.S., which has the “highest incarceration rates in the known universe” and is slowly turning away from the tough-on-crime approach that has proven ineffective and extremely costly.
With the reduced funding, CoSA Canada is exploring the innovative Social Impact Bond funding model. Under this approach private investors would front money for CoSA operations and if the programs demonstrate results that save government money by avoiding the costs related with people re-offending, then government would pay back the investors with interest. Social Impact Bonds have been used for young offender programs in the U.K. and U.S.
In February, the federal Standing Committee on Public Safety issued a report on the matter that recommended that the department identify programs that could be transitioned to this form of funding. Stephen Siemens, who co-ordinates restorative justice work for MCC Canada, and heads the CoSA work on social financing, says he is hopeful that this approach could provide a stable future for CoSA as well as a meaningful way for faith communities to “invest in the infrastructure of community safety.”
Sirois said Public Safety Canada has “no specific comment at this time” on the possibility of Social Impact Bond funding for CoSA.
Will Braun writes for Canadian Mennonite magazine, in which this article first appeared.