7 Mar 2016

Trust feels 'torpedoed' by Corrections

2:05 pm on 7 March 2016

A trust that the Corrections Department is depending on to run a programme managing paedophiles says it feels torpedoed.

The Bond Trust said the department had damaged its credibility, demoralised its volunteers, and misled life-sentence prisoners into thinking they might get out. It had also underminined its own stated goal to cut re-offending by 25 percent by next year.

The Trust said it didn't know what hit it when Corrections, stung by the Phillip Smith escape saga, pulled the plug on the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) it had set up for a handful of the very worst paedophiles.

Convicted killer Smith was in a Circle COSA and used its volunteers as a decoy in his escape to Brazil in 2014.

Yet the Bond Trust is central to plans to set up new circles for less-serious paedophiles.

Corrections departmental commissioner Alastair Riach told RNZ News last week, when it broke this story, "We're still working with the Bond Trust, not in a contractual arrangement at the moment - we're still working with them to pull together something that works well for our people that are on finite sentences and have to be released into the community."

Bond Trust chairman John Newick said today "To the extent that we have been invited to run this pilot and we have said yes, subject to whatever the conditions are, which we are yet to find out ... We're still in the dark really.

"It's just a very, very small pilot - I gather it's for three people with finite sentences. It's at best token I think ... it doesn't look very promising to me."

Mr Newick's frustration and disappointment were palpable throughout a long interview, and he suggested the the trust might pull out entirely.

"That's always a possibility, but we really want to make this work. But the we have got to get buy-in from the department. The fact is that Circles UK - that's best practice internationally - are thriving, they are getting bucketloads of money."

A world leading authority on Circles of Support and Accountability, clinical psychologist Robin Wilson of Florida, warned the stakes were high.

"We've got four major studies ... all of which have shown rather large reductions in rates of reoffending in all domains, not just sexual but violent and general offending as well - somewhere in the magnitude of 70 to 75 percent reductions [compared to a paedophile not in a Circle].

"For me it's a no-brainer. This is exactly the sort of thing we ought to be doing and it gets us way better results than most other interventions we have researched."

Corrections insisted Circles have not been scuttled - that its own staff could set new ones up, just not with paedophiles on preventive detention, only those on finite sentences. And it praised the volunteers to the skies.

But Mr Newick was plumbing the depths.

"I'm deeply disappointed. We put colossal time and effort into setting up [the] Bond [Trust]. To get torpedoed because of the Smith saga is deeply regrettable to say the least."

He contrasted the $25,000 one-off annual contract the trust got from Corrections and which lapsed last year, with a recent $2 million pound lottery grant to set up 190 support circles across Britain by 2019.

Corrections provided RNZ News with a very long statement listing the many ways child sex offenders were monitored and treated, including reintegration help, accommodation options and "wraparound support" - it added that all of this was much more comprehensive than six years ago when the Circles trial began.

So with all these other options, maybe Corrections doesn't need Circles after all?

Florida's Dr Robin Wilson said Circles was unusual because its volunteers plugged the gaps left by institutions, targeting the dangerous isolation outside prison that lay in wait for paedophiles released into a hostile society.

"I think you're in danger of losing a very important possibility in the risk management of high-risk and high-need offenders," he said.

New Zealand's Circles have only ever formed around preventive detention abusers - the worst of the worst.

The shift to less serious paedophiles is more in line with how Circles in the UK run.

Professor Susanne Karstedt - who oversaw British research into Circles said New Zealand made the wrong call six years ago, because hardcore paedophiles were too tough for volunteers to work with, even with the training they got.

She said she could understand if Corrections made that call out of financial pressure, wanting to see if Circles could be of use in enabling the release of inmates whose indefinite incarceration was very expensive.

However, Dr Wilson said Canada had tended to put very high-risk paedophiles in Circles because there were fewer options to manage them, and for New Zealand to do likewise was good practice.

Wherever it is, the Circles programme is particularly vulnerable to political influence: Consider, for instance, that in the Phillip Smith case, he was more likely to be released if he was part of such a Circle than if he wasn't - and how many people would've wanted him freed?

In Canada, where the programme originated and which has 700 volunteers, the federal Government cut almost all funding to Circles last year, declaring that it "believes that dangerous sex offenders belong behind bars".