15 Nov 2022

When sex offenders go to rehab

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 15 November 2022

Rehabilitation programmes for sexual offenders have a high rate of success, in terms of reducing reoffending. But how do they work?

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Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

By the time a sex offender gets to court to be sentenced for their crime, they will have already been through 30 to 40 days of assessment. If they're lucky.

If they're sent to prison, they will be placed on a rehabilitation programme that involves group therapy. Again, if they're lucky.

Such is the demand for rehabilitation programmes - some prisoners don't get access to them before they're released, or once they're in the community.

"If they run out of time, they won't get parole, they won't get anything, they'll just be released onto the street," says Chester Borrows, who's worked in the justice system for 45 years in various roles including as a police officer, Police Minister, a member of the parole board, and chair of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group.

Borrows describes this situation as inexplicable and frustrating.

"Most of the public want to know that people in prison get access to rehabilitation," he says.

Defence lawyer John Munro says some young, low-risk offenders come out of prison without any kind of treatment, because they're not a priority for programmes.

"That's a huge failing in my opinion," he says. 

Munro says those who can afford to will pay for costly private treatment, because they're committed to dealing with their problem.

Today The Detail looks at what happens when a sex offender attends rehab in prison or in the community. It follows our podcast about Jayden Meyer, who is halfway through a nine-month home detention sentence after he was convicted of raping four teenage girls and sexually violating another.

The sentence sparked angry protests over what many consider an injustice of the system. 

But Borrows says home detention is no easy ticket out of jail, as the conditions are rigorous.

Canterbury University associate law professor Debra Wilson told The Detail in the earlier podcast that rehabilitation is one of the key conditions of Meyer's home detention sentence.

A judge will check on his progress every three months and if he is not engaging in rehabilitation then he could be resentenced and possibly sent to jail, she said.

Figures from Corrections show that, all up, about $350 million a year is spent on rehabilitation, reintegration and other support services.

Borrows explains that offenders have to agree to rehabilitation, but there are incentives, such as a reduction in their sentence, or earlier release.

Group therapy is a key part of the rehabilitation, he says. 

"Each individual is largely accountable to the group. Sooner or later they have to talk about their offending to the group and if that person tries to mitigate, victim blame, in other ways step out of it and say, 'it wasn't me' or 'it was done to me' or whatever, then the group holds them to account and that can be pretty forceful and pretty strident."

The group sessions run every day for several months, says Borrows, and offenders cannot shirk their responsibility.

"These are other sexual offenders who have just had the scales taken off their eyes and they can see what they did and the heinous stuff that they've committed and [they're] therefore quite prepared to hold other people in their group accountable for theirs.”

Borrows says some of the most humbling things he's witnessed in prisons is people who go before the parole board, talking about their offending in front of their family members who have always thought they were wrongly accused.

"This some of the best and most healing stuff that happens in prisons," he says.

Munro, who has represented numerous sexual offenders over a decade working as a defence lawyer, explains to The Detail the extensive testing and assessments carried out before someone attends a sentencing hearing.

"It's like a job," says Munro.

Reports from those assessments are presented to the courts and will determine whether the offender is low or high risk, and the degree of their offending.

Young offenders and low-risk offenders tend to be sentenced to home detention, with community rehabilitation.

The main community rehabilitation programmes for people who display harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) are run by the Trinity Alliance, and include the Safe Network in the upper North Island, WellStop in the lower North Island, and Stop in the South Island. 

They are funded by various government agencies - Corrections, the Ministry for Social Development and ACC - as well as local trusts and community funds. 

Most people who receive help through these programmes are referred through the courts, though there are some who self-refer and pay privately, having not been formally convicted of any offences.

Where to get help:

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Prevention Education

Empowerment Trust

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - 0

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour 0800 044 334.

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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