CoSA: cautious optimism

March 12, 2014 | Editorial | Number 6
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Programmers and volunteers of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) across the country happily got word of a reversal of a federal government decision to cut funding that helps keep sexual offenders from reoffending.

CoSA is a highly successful program that matches a circle of volunteers with offenders convicted of serious sex crimes, such as rape and pedophilia, just as offenders are completing their prison sentences. The nationwide program operates in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and New Brunswick.

“MCC’s long history with CoSAs have shown they are the best way to protect public safety, working with dangerous offenders in the most cost-effective way while also providing a chance for someone who has sexually offended to turn their life around and live offence-free,” said Stephen Siemens, restorative justice coordinator for MCC Canada.

The trained volunteers offer help with basic things such as finding offenders a place to live or a doctor, but they also provide a support network the offenders can turn to if they feel themselves being drawn back into their former criminal habits. They reduce the isolation of the offenders, many of whom have few supports and little or no family connections.

But CoSA programmers were subjected to a big scare late last month when they received calls and e-mails that the program, set up with a pilot project $1.5 million grant from Correctional Service Canada (CSC), would expire on March 31. Since it was a pilot program, the government is not legally bound to continue it, according to a spokesperson.

It was a short-sighted fiscal decision. It is much cheaper to rehabilitate offenders, Tajinder Kainth, a CoSA volunteer from Kitchener, Ont., told the local newspaper. “The Circles program costs $325,000 a year to support about 155 offenders in several Ontario cities, while it costs about $110,000 a year to house a single male inmate in Canada.”

Go figure. This is not good economics, let alone moral or ethical.

We hope the most recent decision not to cut the funding sticks. It is a jittery time in Ottawa right now, with the present government determined to cut everything it can to balance the budget in time for elections next year. Much higher on its “crime and punishment” agenda is a focus on crime victims, rather than the rehabilitation of offenders. That is too bad.

Canadian Mennonites have deep ownership in CoSA, which has its roots in the ministry of Harry Nigh, then-pastor of the Welcome Inn Church of Hamilton, Ont. Nigh formed a group of volunteers who pioneered the concept of surrounding offenders with a caring circle, a model that has proliferated across Canada and into the United Kingdom, Europe and the U.S.

“There are presently over 30 individual CoSA projects worldwide, all based in part on the innovative model developed over the past 20 years in Canada,” said Robin J. Wilson, a former CSC psychologist. “But the funding for it in Canada has always been tenuous.”

Wilson recounted a trip to Ottawa in 1996 by CSC and delegates from MCC Ontario with then-Solicitor General Herb Gray; CoSA was initially turned down. Gray did concede, eventually, that while the government had no legal obligation there was a moral responsibility for providing these services to offenders. On that basis, a funding structure was established that has seen CoSA supported over 18 years.

We hope the original vision can be restored and kept intact. A lot of credit goes to local politicians like Harold Albrecht, the Kitchener-Conestoga MP and a member of the Brethren in Christ communion, who, when hearing of the cutback, got on the phone to Steven Blaney, the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness; as well as to Health Minister Rona Ambrose, who also spoke with Blaney to push for restoration.

The restoration of $650,000 to a $2.2-million-per-year program is appreciated, but is only a drop in the bucket when you hear the news of much larger sums of tax dollars going toward more prisons and harsher prison sentences.

CoSA currently has 600 to 700 volunteers working with high-risk offenders around the country, CoSA spokesperson Andrew McWhinnie told the Edmonton Journal. Federal government studies have shown a 70 percent to 83 percent reduction in sexual re-offences by those who take part in the program.

Those are the hard facts from the government. What motivates us as Anabaptist Christians is Jesus’ mandate: “When in prison, you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

--Posted March 12, 2014

For more Canadian Mennonite coverage on this subject see:

Funding cut for MCC’s Circles of Support and Accountability

CSC reverses decision for a portion of CoSA funding

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Comments

In Manitoba the potential funding cut represented the final execution of a slow but gradual death by a thousand cuts. CoSA funding has not been increased for 20 years. Funding for CoSA has been eroded to less than half of it's original buying power through lack of inflation increases. Government support has been soft, fickle and non-committal.

The fact that the justice system is a revolving door of repeat offenders and programs like CoSA reduce recidivism by up to 70%, sadly means little to politicians. Even though CoSA requires strong accountability and responsibility from offenders for their horrible crimes, it's perceived as a "soft on crime" alternative justice.

I recently sat in a CoSA circle and listened to an offender describe how the CoSA program had saved him from suicide and restored his relationship with his family. This individual will spend the rest of his life suffering the psycho-social pain of his offence (as may his victims). CoSA offers a bit of light in the dark tunnel of recovery for offenders and their loved ones. Offenders desire restored relationships and a way to pay for their crime. CoSA offers a way. If governments are so blind to the brilliance of CoSA's light, people of faith should readily set up and fund this important ministry. If nothing else, consider that your donation creates more than 10X the social return on investment than a tax dollar put into the justice system.

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