Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and committee members.
I am Andrew McWhinnie. I hold a master's degree in psychology with an emphasis on the psychology of criminal conduct. About one-third of my private practice is with men who have come into conflict with the law as a result of their sexual behaviour. I also work with men and women who have been sexually victimized. I also consult with correctional agencies nationally and internationally with regard to reintegration strategies for people who have been convicted of sexual assault and other sexual crimes, called circles of support and accountability. I welcome this opportunity to appear before you today.
I wish to address three points. First, as it stands now, while Bill C-54 is a good bill generally, its efforts to institute and modify minimum sentences upwards for sexual offences against children will have the unintended effect of actually decreasing safety for children. At the same time, it will handcuff one of the best-placed safeguards against those unintended consequences, the judiciary. We can and must do better for our children.
The majority, over 80%, of sexual offences against children are perpetrated by a relative or someone known to the child. Further, we need to remember that the majority of those convicted of sexual offences against children will return to the community. Increasing mandatory minimum sentences exposes potential child victims and their families who are the unseen victims of sexual assault to increased harm, because many families, including the children, are dependent on the offenders. The ability to remain in the community, while unpalatable for some, means that the offender will in many cases be able to continue supporting his family while receiving treatment. We cannot and must not ignore or trivialize this fact. These family members are innocent and should not be punished.
The bill proposes a virtual automatic jail sentence of five years for an incest offender, given that most of these incest offences are prosecuted years after the incidents occurred. Incest offenders are the least likely to reoffend, and yet the stiffest penalty proposed under Bill C-54 is reserved for them. This makes no sense and is not what Canadian families want.
For others, an automatic jail term compromises the ability of offenders to access treatment in the community. Receiving treatment in jail will not happen during sentences of 30 and 90 days. Treatment could, however, be started in this time period were the offender left in the community. This is important, given that we know that treated offenders are less likely to reoffend than untreated offenders. This is even more important when you consider that one of the developmental factors that most differentiates child molesters from non-sexual offenders is the history of being sexually victimized in childhood. We should think about that.
Following even a minimum sentence, offenders will be returned to their community--or some other unsuspecting community--and their families as untreated, unemployed, unsupported, and despised. How does this accomplish a major goal of the proposed legislation to prevent the commission of sexual offences against the child?
Left as it is, this bill has the very real risk of doing exactly the opposite. It is true, of course, that not all offenders are members of intact families, not all are employed, not all are in communities where treatment is available, and not all are victims of horrific sexual assaults. True, some families will want them removed from the community. Bill C-54 does not distinguish these differences. Instead, it would handcuff that critically important part of our justice system best placed to assess these variances. Judges will not be able to consider the needs of this complex and diverse group of offenders and craft sentences designed to meet the needs of those people and protect Canadian children.
Other countries, and particularly the United States, have been down this road ahead of us. We need to look carefully at what their experience has been. Some members of the European Union--for example, Latvia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium--and some states in the United States are looking at their laws with a view to reducing the time some offenders spend in jail. I will soon be offering testimony to the California Supreme Court, which is interested in exploring options other than incarceration for some of their sexually violent predators who are currently subject to their civil commitment statutes. They have discovered the hard way that increasing the incarceration rate with ever more severe punishment-focused laws is unaffordable, and it is having a serious impact on their fiscal and social economies.
Some like to think that victims want perpetrators to be punished harshly by spending more time in jail, but this is not always the case. Many simply want only three things: for the offences to stop and not to happen to other children, for the offender to obtain the help and support they need not to offend again, and to know why they were chosen by their offender. In other words, they want counselling and support for themselves.
Finally, I want to emphasize that the best practices nationally and internationally recognize that the prevention of crime through treatment, especially of youth at risk, and provision of support for victims, especially those who may go on to become abusers, are practices that make real differences in a society's bid to protect its most vulnerable members.
One such practice that provides those needed supports and encouragements to living safe and accountable lives among adult offenders is circles of support and accountability. Circles of support and accountability are a Canadian innovation, first attempted by members of a Mennonite church in southern Ontario. Circles of support and accountability are groups of between four and seven citizen volunteers who agree to accompany, support, and hold a sexual offender accountable following his release from imprisonment. Volunteers are screened and they receive training for this purpose.
In a national study of the effectiveness of circles, researchers found circles of support and accountability participants had an 83% less likelihood of reoffending, 73% less violent reoffending, and 72% less reoffending of any kind than a matched comparison group who did not participate in circles. Further, in looking at the total number of new charges incurred by the two groups, as opposed to just the numbers of offenders who recidivated, the comparison group garnered 76% more charges than the circles of support and accountability group.
I have submitted a report containing those numbers to the clerk, which will be translated and made available to members of this committee.
Circles of support and accountability are supported in part by the Correctional Service of Canada chaplaincy division and by other faith and non-faith supporters in the community. Currently they work with about 160 offenders, with over 350 volunteers nationwide.
The annual budget for COSA, circles of support and accountability, in Canada is $2.5 million, a fraction of the cost that will be incurred by Bill C-54 and other tough-on-crime measures. Borrowing from the Canadian example, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Latvia, and several U.S. states have developed COSA in their jurisdictions.
While Bill C-54 has the potential for good and the potential to deliver on its promises of protecting children, it also has some serious flaws. These have especially to do with the blanket mandatory sanctions that will not safeguard children. Indeed, these may actually increase the danger towards children.
Other countries are looking at other options instead of increasing incarceration rates. The resources that would be required to implement the mandatory minimums called for in Bill C-54 would be far better diverted to increasing treatment for sexual offenders and equipping alternatives like circles of support and accountability.
Both of these options, circles of support and accoutability and treatment, have proved to be very effective at reducing reoffence rates against children, thereby substantially increasing safety in our society and internationally.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of this committee, for the opportunity to discuss these very important matters with you. I am available for questions, as you see fit.