Sex offender post-incarceration program imperilled | Eileen Henderson and Cliff Yumansky

By Eileen Henderson and Cliff Yumansky

Law360 Canada (October 7, 2022, 10:23 AM EDT) --
Eileen Henderson
Cliff Yumansky
Cliff Yumansky
CoSA (circles of support and accountability) is a pan-Canadian, community-based organization whose mission is to substantially reduce the risk of future sexual victimization of community members. CoSA assists persons released from prison after being convicted of a sexual offence who want support in reintegrating with the community and leading responsible, productive and accountable lives.

Contrary to what most people think, sex offenders in Canada have a very low rate of reoffending. Yet because of the stigma these crimes often carry, people imprisoned for sex offences often lose family connections, friends, employment and housing, making it much harder to live a positive and crime-free life.

CoSA model

The CoSA model matches “core members,” those released from prison, with a “circle,” a group of trained volunteers in the community who provide, as the title says, support and accountability. Many core members come to CoSA on the recommendation of their parole or probation officers, while others may come from referrals from their lawyers, who are aware of the program’s effectiveness.  

CoSA circles help with the daily challenges of life after release from prison. They provide a social network so people are less isolated while at the same time they are structured to keep core members mindful of the harm they have caused and committed to avoiding reoffending.

The significant body of research on COSA is overwhelmingly clear. The program works. At least 28 studies in several countries show that CoSA dramatically reduces reoffending. A 2018 study demonstrated that participating in the CoSA program significantly reduced sexual recidivism, lowering the risk for new sex offences by 88 per cent.

Canadawide, community based

The CoSA model was developed in Canada more than 25 years ago and has been steadily refined based on experience and research. It has also been exported to other countries, including the U.S., several European countries and Australia. Other nations are exploring the possibility of establishing CoSA programs as a way to have fewer victims of sexual offences.

In Canada, CoSA is operated by a wide variety of community agencies, using the same program model but adapting it to local circumstances. CoSA Canada provides national co-ordination and support and was a conduit for federal government funding. Our model assumes that local agencies know their community needs best. Because the program operates mainly with volunteers, is it very inexpensive and extremely cost-effective. 

Federal government ended funding

CoSA was 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.

This means many high-risk sex offenders are not getting support with their reintegration needs and are at greater risk to reoffend.

Discussions about funding with federal officials, including Public Safety and Justice Canada, remain ongoing. CoSA Canada is committed to identifying funding opportunities at the provincial and municipal levels as well.

Why this program makes sense

CoSA fits very well with the Reduction of Recidivism Framework Act, a bill passed by Parliament in 2021. The Federal Framework to Reduce Recidivism, tabled in June 2022, calls for more programs to promote the successful reintegration of offenders upon release from incarceration, which is exactly what CoSA does.

CoSA is a cost-effective, community-based, non-profit organization that succeeds in meeting the goals of reducing criminal behaviour and thus improving public safety. It does so by having a proven approach and standardized, evidence-based programs that reduce recidivism, prevent further victimization and promote safe and healthy community reintegration of those who have committed offences. It is effective and inexpensive, and a Canadian success story. It should be an ongoing part of efforts to reduce violence and harm in our country.

Eileen Henderson is chair of the board of directors and Cliff Yumansky is executive director of CoSA Canada.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice. 

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