Disturbing and perplexing is the only way to describe the cut in federal funding for a proven program of ex-prisoner rehabilitation called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA).
For more than two decades, this partnership between church and government contributed to public safety by matching three to five volunteers who meet weekly with released high-risk sex offenders for support, friendship and accountability. (See “A less safe environment for everybody” by Will Braun on page 18.) For all of its success, acknowledged by an in-depth study of the government itself, funding will be cut as of March 31, with the exception of a previously signed contract specific to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario.
Lost in the bureaucratic maze—with obvious political undertones—are the stories of restoration and hope by the persons most affected. And it is a real snub to those dedicated volunteers following the call of “when in prison, you visited me” (Matthew 25:43). Listen to the cries of the prisoner as reported in an online story posted by MCC Ontario:
“When you come out of prison, I found that I don’t belong anywhere. I don’t belong in the city that I used to live in. I don’t belong in this city where I moved. I don’t belong anywhere. My friends are all gone, you have no more friends, and so Circles of Support is kind of like that anchor that you can hold on to. They’re people that you know, they’re people that you can get on the phone and contact. And I can’t stress how important that is when you feel alone. And you really have to be in that position to understand what I mean when I say you ‘feel alone.’ ”
Or the heartfelt sentiments of another:
“When I look at how the inmates treated me in the pen, and how they treat me here after being involved with CoSA, and that is a different attitude now. They show me a whole bunch of respect. And in the pen it was just different . . . just a downer. But when they see you here and you’re living a positive lifestyle . . . and it has to do with being around healthy people. That’s what it’s all about: being around healthy people.“
Or from a British Columbia circle:
“The circle creates an arena for me to be myself, and to not fear being judged or rejected. Before the circle, I didn’t know what love is, or how to love. My mother killed herself when I was 18 and I shut down after that. Being in the circle, I am learning to function like everyone else in a healthy way, not having to fear going back to prison again, not having to live the way I used to live, not having to think the way I used to think. I was trapped in that whole thinking because, if you can’t let it out and expose the secrets, they entrap you and enslave you completely. CoSA represents freedom. It is nice to be accepted for who I really am despite what I have done.”
When one hears these stories of transformation, it’s hard to comprehend how government officials see this as unworthy of financial support, especially when volunteers give of their time in making friends with the most deserted and sometimes despised persons in our communities. And the study shows that sexual re-offences among CoSA participants were 2 percent over three years following release, compared to 28 percent among similar populations not enrolled in the program!
One can only conclude that, even though highly effective, spawning a model used across Canada and in nine countries around the world, CoSA doesn’t fit the present government’s narrative on law and order, whose primary emphasis is on punishment, rather than restorative justice. It brings hope, rather than fear, a dynamic that doesn’t fit the political currency of the times.
We think that narrative is wrong and counterproductive. It has been proven that a strict law-and-order approach does not lessen crime in our society. Crime rates have gone down while the sloganeering about punishing violent crime has increased, its goal obviously to instill fear about our common safety. It is commonly acknowledged that our prison culture, rather than containing crime, fosters and enhances it.
What a waste of one of society’s and the church’s greatest assets!