3 Mar 2016

Paedophile scheme falls foul of Smith case

11:01 am on 3 March 2016

The Corrections Department is axeing a programme aimed at the worst paedophiles, in the fallout from the case of convicted killer and child abuser Phillip Smith.

Its contracts have lapsed for about eight volunteer groups in Auckland and Hamilton that help child abusers on preventive detention reintegrate into society.

A cell block at Auckland South Corrections Facility.

Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The programme, Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), gives volunteers special oversight of a child sex criminal, but it has fallen foul of the fallout from the case Phillip Smith, who fled to South Americia while on temporary release in 2014 and was captured in Brazil.

Smith was in a COSA group when he fled by pretending he was being monitored by a COSA sponsor.

In December the prisons department let lapse its only two contracts to find volunteers for the scheme - in Auckland and Hamilton where there were a total of eight groups.

That is despite last year's inquiry into the Smith escape saying the COSA programme was working and should be expanded.

It said the programme should be supported properly after six years of it taking on only the worst paedophiles - those on preventive detention who are monitored and can be recalled to prison at any time.

The Parole Board also likes the COSA programme.

Corrections said it was not shelving the programme - but its new pilot in Auckland would not take on any preventive detention prisoners, only paedophiles on finite sentences.

Academic Peter Lineham was part of Smith's COSA group and is trying to set up two new groups for preventive detention inmates. He did not know about Corrections' shift of position until RNZ News told him.

"Every aspect of the programme, and the review of that programme that's been done publicly, has ended up supporting the programme," said Professor Lineham.

"And yet it seems as though - and of course we're told nothing - as though the programme is being undermined, I presume it's being undermined from a very high level from the Department of Corrections."

Corrections' change will block two preventive detention prisoners Prof. Lineham is working with currently - though he said those two inmates still believed they could make a case to the Parole Board that COSA gave them enough support to be released.

The COSA programme has cut reoffending by sex criminals in Canada, where it originated, and the Britain.

In Auckland, COSA member David Kingston has spent five years in close touch with a paedophile his group had helped.

"We've had a pretty positive impact on him and the direction he is heading," said Mr Kingston.

"If it was somebody else exhibiting similar situation to Richard, it'd be a pity they didn't have the opportunity to go through a process and start their life again."

COSA already under review - Corrections

Corrections said the Smith escape made it look again at COSA, but it had been reviewing it anyway and that had shown it was of little benefit with the worst paedophiles.

Northern regional commissioner Alastair Riach said the first 10 offenders when the trial began in 2009 did not reoffend, but when he looked again in 2014 he found up a third had reoffended, some with sex crimes.

He said that was why they had dropped the contracts and changed tack.

"We needed to start looking at people who had to get out of jail. Whereas those people on preventive detention, they don't have to be released ever. So that's what we've decided to do," said Mr Riach.

"We haven't got an endless supply of people who've been sentenced to preventive detention who are in a state where we can show the Parole Board that they don't pose a risk to New Zealanders."

Corrections said there were other options available for high-risk convicted child sex offenders, including two special treatment units in Auckland and Christchurch and one-on-one psychology sessions.

Phillip Smith

Phillip Smith Photo: RNZ / Murielle Baker

Prof Lineham said he would like to know what research Corrections had done into that.

"They certainly have never questioned me or the members of my group, which is one of the really successful circles of support and accountability.

"Secondly, I know there's a student at Auckland University doing research into this matter, she thinks that the group has gone well. Of course it's been a very small pilot. Thirdly, there's very strong international evidence that suggests that this can be successful."

Prof Lineham said that since the Smith escape inquiry most of the psychologists within Corrections who backed the COSA programme had left.

Corrections said all preventive detention paedophiles were still being monitored by probation and some still got informal support from COSA volunteers.

It said it might be easier to get results with less dangerous abusers.

Why it let COSA run for six years supporting men on indefinite sentences, when it now says the programme as it ran overseas was never designed for them, has not been made clear.

Nor could Mr Riach say how much Corrections spent on the programme or what it will spend on its replacement.