Monday, June 13, 2011

Troubling things are happening in Canada…

Over the past several years, the Correctional Service of Canada has been implementing significant changes to the way it does business (see CSC, 2007). Currently, the Conservative government is gearing up to push its Omnibus Crime Bill through the House of Commons, which will result in sweeping changes to how crime and justice are managed in Canada. I’ve written about this before (Wilson, 2008), but something happened recently that really upset me.

During a check-in with a former intern and colleague back in Canada, she informed me that on May 26, 2011 the last community-based sexual offender group session was held at the Keele Centre, a halfway house in Toronto. That brought to a close 18 years of uninterrupted post-release aftercare for sexual offenders on conditional release to Canada’s largest city. I’m told that this program was one of the last to be terminated as the Correctional Service of Canada moves to significantly alter the way in which it offers (or maybe doesn’t) treatment to offenders after they are released from prison. Most institutionally-based sexual offender treatment programs have already been terminated and staff—including some of international renown—have been reassigned to other duties.

On the surface, these may seem like simple bureaucratic decisions—the sorts of things that many governments might do as they attempt to retool their services. However, I think it is really important that we put this in some context.

Celia Ruygrok was a Carlton University student working alone on an overnight shift at an Ottawa halfway house when she was murdered in July 1985 by a resident of that same halfway house. Tema Conter was murdered in Toronto in January 1988 by a convicted murderer and sexual offender who had spent most of his adolescent and adult life in jail. He was living in a downtown Toronto halfway house that was subsequently closed and never reopened. In June 1988, 11 year old Christopher Stephenson was abducted from a Brampton shopping mall, sexually assaulted, and murdered, again, by a known sexual offender living in a halfway house that, to my knowledge, never again accepted sexual offenders as residents.

These tragedies resulted in changes to the operation of community residential facilities across Canada, including the development of detailed Operating Standards for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). Indeed, the deaths of Celia, Tema, and Christopher galvanized the people of Ontario (and, arguably, the people of the entire nation) against what they saw as haphazard policies in managing the risk posed by sexual offenders conditionally released to the community.

The deaths of these three persons were examined in the Ruygrok Coroner’s Inquest, the Pepino Inquiry, and the Stephenson Inquest. Those reviews ushered in dramatic changes in perspective regarding community-based sexual offender management in Canada. During the Stephenson Inquest of 1993, 108 recommendations were made, of which the following three were among the most pertinent to the Correctional Service of Canada (Solicitor General Canada — see Petrunik, 1994):

  1. the development of a "national strategy for the assessment, management, and treatment of sex offenders"

  2. the creation of a "National Coordinator for the treatment and management of Sexual offenders"

  3. the funding and expansion of "established community based sexual offender treatment programs for offender aftercare"

In anticipation of the third finding, the Correctional Service of Canada in the Ontario Region instituted three contracted pilot programs (Kingston [Dr. Bill Marshall], Hamilton [Dr. Rita Bradley], and Toronto [Dr. Ron Langevin]). In a sense, CSC was striking a deal with these communities—ostensibly by establishing programs and policies to ensure that no further tragedies would occur.

Concurrently, the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry (now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) in Toronto was running a relapse prevention group program for outpatient sexual offenders. Dr. Christopher Webster (of HCR-20 fame) was the head of the department responsible. I was involved as the Senior Therapist in the Clarke Institute program and the lead therapist for the Toronto pilot program. When the Toronto pilot program folded, leaving CSC without community-based treatment resources in Canada’s largest city, CSC recruited me as its first ever community-based sexual offender specialist and the Relapse Prevention (RP) Maintenance Program was established.

The RP Maintenance Program had two streams: 1) the ‘Traditional Maintenance’ program for offenders who presented at the lower risk levels; and 2) the ‘Structured Maintenance’ program for higher risk offenders. The Traditional program was offered by CSC staff, while the Structured program was offered by the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry under contract to CSC. Essentially, I brought the Toronto pilot program in-house to CSC, while the Clarke Institute, under the new direction of Dr. Howard Barbaree (former SAJRT Editor and titan of Canadian sexual offender research and practice), morphed their program into the “structured” program option noted above.

The “national strategy” and “national coordinator” elements called for during the Stephenson Inquest were addressed in three phases. First, in 1994, a Corporate Advisor, Sex Offender Programs was designated and Canadian sexual offender treatment pioneer Dr. Sharon Williams was appointed to the position. Second, in 1995, a national consultation was subsequently held in Toronto, during which all sexual offender service providers affiliated with CSC from across the country met to discuss policy and procedure. Last, in 1996, CSC instituted standards for sexual offender assessment, treatment, and supervision (CSC, 1996). Eventually, these policy and practice standards became the foundation of CSC’s current National Sex Offender Treatment (NaSOT) programs. The RP Maintenance Program I developed in the Central Ontario Parole District (Toronto) served as the model program for the Maintenance component of NaSOT.

In the early days of community-based sexual offender treatment at the Keele Centre, where the groups were held, the back portion of the main floor was actually assigned to the Ministry of Natural Resources. It was very odd to carve out a space in the back corner of a warehouse storing canoes, outboard motors, tents, and the like. Nonetheless, we cobbled together a dozen old and stained office chairs and some funky 1970s dividers from the basement storage room and set up our “group area”. That’s where we held those initial sessions.

Over the ensuing 18 years, many staff and clinical interns came and went, but the RP Maintenance Program endured. We published our first review in 2000 (Wilson, Stewart, Stirpe, Barrett, & Cripps, 2000), with results showing incrementally lower rates of recidivism when combining community follow-up treatment with RNR-informed parole supervision. We updated this review in 2007 (Wilson, Cortoni, Picheca, Stirpe, & Nunes, 2007a), with results that were equally favorable. Actually, delivering the Wilson et al. (2007a) research report and another on Circles of Support & Accountability was the last thing I did in Canada before heading off to Florida to take on the Clinical Directorship of the Florida Civil Commitment Center. The COSA research report (Wilson, Cortoni, & Vermani, 2007b) was ultimately published on the CSC website as R-185 in 2009 but, more than four years later, there is still no sign of R-188.

How can that be?

Here is a research report detailing a coordinated effort by dedicated treatment and parole supervisory staff showing great results in terms of reduced recidivism and reduced harm to the community, and CSC won’t post the report. Seems a bit sinister, eh? Especially so, when you consider some of the other interesting things that have happened in Canada.

For instance, go to and try to find Smith, Goggin, and Gendreau (2002). Interestingly, “2002” has no reports under its tab.


As a public service, I’ll be happy to provide a pdf of this report to anyone who emails me ( In a meta-analysis of 117 studies involving 442,471 (!) subjects from international jurisdictions, Smith et al. (2002) investigated correlations between recidivism and (a) length of time incarcerated, (b) institutional sentence vs. a community-based sanctions, and (c) receiving an intermediate sanction (e.g., electronic monitoring, boot camps, drug testing). This represents, perhaps, one of the largest studies ever completed examining the effects of incarceration on reoffending. The following quote is important in understanding this study’s findings regarding the lesser effectiveness of “sanction alone” as a deterrent against reoffending:

We are confident that, no matter how many studies are subsequently found, sanction studies will not produce results indicative of even modest suppression effects or results remotely approximating outcomes reported for certain types of treatment programs. (p.19)

Simply put, this gargantuan study shows conclusively that sanction alone does not reduce crime, and that it is only by offering evidence-based human service interventions (following RNR principles outlined below) that we see reductions in reoffending on release to the community.

So, here we have two research reports funded and supported—in one way or another—by the Canadian federal government, that that same government (in its present incarnation) now seems inclined to disavow or pretend never happened. Not surprisingly, this is the same government (in its present incarnation) that now espouses a “get tough on crime” agenda that is, at times, at odds with the findings of these two reports (and others, I’m sure).

It is of some relevance to note that neither of these two reports are islands in the research literature. Regarding the Smith et al. meta-analysis, interested readers can check out a markedly similar meta-analysis by Aos and crew at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (Aos, Miller, & Drake, 2006; see also Lipsey & Cullen, 2007). Treatment for sexual offenders now enjoys support from a number of large-scale publications, not the least of which is Hanson et al.’s meta-analysis of RNR principles as they apply to SO treatment (Hanson, Bourgon, Helmus, & Hodgson, 2009).

Many legislators and correctional professionals in the USA are currently agonizing over how to bring down skyrocketing criminal justice costs. Some say that a number of States on the verge of bankruptcy because of these costs. In these times of fiscal uncertainty, many jurisdictions are regretting some of the costly measures they initiated without first doing the research as to whether or not those measures would actually accomplish their appointed tasks (see Levenson & D’Amora, 2007). Nonetheless, the federal government in Canada appears hell-bent on going down the same road, in spite of what tales of woe their American colleagues might share. This is particularly disheartening when we consider that a good deal of the best practice research and literature regarding effective assessment, treatment, and risk management of offenders is of Canadian origin.

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in 2008. It seems silly to try to rewrite it, so I’m simply reprinting the pertinent section here, with apologies to the Journal of Community Corrections:

Many might point to the turn of the millennium as the “heyday” of Canadian corrections. At that time, many of the major advances in criminal justice understanding and practice were coming out of Canada. Andrews’ and Bonta’s seminal work The Psychology of Criminal Conduct (1994; reissued 2007) addressed Martinson’s (1974) “Nothing Works” findings through meta-analysis and, in the process, helped define modern approaches to correctional programming in what has become known as the risk, needs, responsivity (RNR) model. In many ways, this model became the lynchpin of the Canadian arm of the “What Works?” movement that has revolutionized corrections … Simply put, the RNR model decrees that correctional programs must match level of intensity of treatment to assessed level of risk, while specifically targeting criminogenic needs in a manner that is attendant to participant idiosyncrasies and that maximizes motivation to change.

Concurrent with efforts to maximize treatment benefit, other Canadians were working hard to refine methods of assessing risk, particularly to address concerns raised by Monahan (1981) that unstructured clinical judgment regarding risk to reoffend led to accuracy levels below chance (i.e., we would have been better off flipping a coin than asking a risk assessment professional for an opinion).

Canadians were at the vanguard of the development of actuarial risk assessment tools, and many of these tools are now widely used internationally. For instance, the Level of Service Inventory–Revised (LSIR; Andrews & Bonta, 2000) is an industry standard for the prediction of general criminality, while the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG; Quinsey et al., 2005) is the equivalent for violent recidivism. Regarding risk for sexual recidivism, Karl Hanson’s work began with the Rapid Risk Assessment for Sex Offender Recidivism (RRASOR; Hanson, 1997) and culminated in the STATIC-99 (Hanson & Thornton, 1999), which is currently the most widely used tool of its kind in the world.

Alongside advancements in program provision and risk assessment, Canada also led the way in effecting sensible policies regarding conditional release and community-based programming. On the strength of works by Andrews, Bonta, Gendreau, and others (e.g., Andrews & Bonta, 2007; Gendreau et al., 1996), Canadian corrections focused on offering evidence-based interventions in institutional settings, with aftercare and coordinated supervision upon release.

In closing, it pains and embarrasses me to say that the rest of the world has started to notice Canada’s dramatic change in approach. I am frequently approached at conferences and asked, “Hey, what’s going on in Canada?” Whether or not Canada leads the world in correctional research and practice is probably not such a big deal. More important is the bond of trust between the government and the community. After the deaths of Celia, Tema, and Christopher, deals were cut and accommodations were made—whether explicitly or implicitly—between those two entities.

They say that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…


Andrews, D.A., & Bonta, J. (2007). The Psychology of Criminal Conduct. 4th Ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Andrews, D.A., & Bonta, J. (2010). The psychology of criminal conduct. 5th Ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Aos, S., Miller, M., & Drake, E. (2006). Evidence-based adult corrections programs: What works and what does not. Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Correctional Service of Canada (1996). Standards and guidelines on the provision of services to sex offenders. Ottawa, ON: Author.

Correctional Service of Canada (CSC, 2007). A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety: Report of the Correctional Service of Canada Review Panel. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.

Gendreau, P., Little, T., & Goggin, C. (1996). A metaanalysis of adult offender recidivism: What works! Criminology, 34, 575–607.

Hanson, R.K. (1997). The development of a brief actuarial scale for sexual offense recidivism. [User Report 1997-04] Ottawa, ON: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.

Hanson, R.K., Bourgon, G., Helmus, L., & Hodgson, S. (2009). The principles of effective correctional treatment also apply to sexual offenders: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36, 865-891.

Hanson, R.K. & Thornton, D. (1999). Static-99: Improving actuarial risk assessments for sexual offenders. [User Report 1999-02] Ottawa, ON: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.

Levenson, J.S., & D’Amora, D.A. (2007). Social policies designed to prevent sexual violence: The emperor's new clothes? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18, 168-199.

Lipsey, M.W., & Cullen, F.T. (2007). The effectiveness of correctional rehabilitation: A review of systematic reviews. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 3, 297-320.

Martinson, R. (1974). Nothing works: Questions and answers about prison reform. The Public Interest, 35, 22–54.

Monahan, J. (1981). The clinical prediction of violent behavior. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. DHSS Publication No. (ADM) 81-921. Reprinted 1981 as Predicting violent behavior: An assessment of clinical techniques. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Petrunik, M.J. (1994). Models of dangerousness: A cross jurisdictional review of dangerousness legislation and practice. [User Report 1994-02] Ottawa, ON: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.

Smith, P., Goggin, C., & Gendreau, P. (2002). The effects of prison sentences and intermediate sanctions on recidivism: General effects and individual differences. Research Report 2002-01. Ottawa, ON: Solicitor General Canada.

Wilson, R.J. (2008). The end of corrections as we know it: A review. Journal of Community Corrections, 17, 9-10/24-26.

Wilson, R.J., Cortoni, F., Picheca, J.E., Stirpe, T.S., & Nunes, K. (2007a). Community-based sexual offender maintenance treatment programming: An evaluation. [Research Report R-188] Ottawa, ON: Correctional Service of Canada.

Wilson, R.J., Cortoni, F., & Vermani, M. (2007b). Circles of Support & Accountability: A national replication of outcome findings. [Research Report R-185] Ottawa, ON: Correctional Service of Canada.

Wilson, R.J., Stewart, L., Stirpe, T., Barrett, M., & Cripps, J.E. (2000). Community-based sex offender management: Combining parole supervision and treatment to reduce recidivism. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 42, 177-188.