Guest Post: Rehabilitation sadly relatively rare

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Regular readers of my pieces may recall my mentoring of a “strike” offender – I’ll call him J – who I met by chance during the summer when buying some tyres. I got into conversation with J after I noticed the MMM [Mighty Mongrel Mob] tattoo on his neck. It transpired that he had been released after serving a prison term for his first strike offence – not his first time in jail – and he had realised that if he didn’t change path he would end up spending most of the rest of his life behind bars.

The first thing that surprised me was his comprehensive and accurate understanding of how 3S works – he knew it better than many lawyers, although his explaining of how it worked was of course in the vernacular. I shouldn’t have been so surprised – many prisoners are very smart, despite having limited education. I decided – with J’s consent – to check in regularly and see how he was doing at his tyre fitters job as time went on. Sadly, when I visited the workplace this week, I was informed that J had quit, without notice, and leaving an unpaid debt of more than $1000 which his generous employer had allowed him to run up for tyres and a battery.

Although he told his employer he had a better offer, it was not hard to find out in this small community that he is currently unemployed. He has also apparently lost a lot of weight, and has other signs of using P. Sadly it is very much more likely than not that J will end up reoffending – as more than 75% of prisoners do within five years – and be back inside, probably after committing another violent offence.

While that is very sad for J, it is even sadder for the parolee population as a whole – here is one more employer who has taken a chance, employed a parolee, and been kicked in the teeth. When I asked J’s former employer if he would be prepared to give some other parolee a similar opportunity, he laughed and said “Not a bloody chance”.
J’s stumble, and listening to Kim Workman arguably making stuff up on the radio last week, got me thinking about rates generally – but more of Mr Workman later. The sad reality is that around 75% of prisoners reoffend within five years of release, and about 60% end up serving another prison sentence within that time. It has long been so, despite many different approaches in many different and varied jurisdictions over a long period of time.

Criminologists are roughly divided into the “nothing works” camp – of which Newbold is for the most part a member, and others who promote and champion various different kinds of programs, most of which have been tried before in some jurisdiction or another. The results of those programs – like Workman’s He Ara Hou in the early 90’s – become spectacular failures if left to run long enough, often with increased rather than decreased reoffending rates. The “nothing works” camp holds that rehabilitation is not program but offender dependent – in other words offenders who want to be rehabilitated will be, and the rest won’t.

But back to Mr Workman. I heard him on the radio last week gravely informing Mark Sainsbury that New Zealand has one of the best records of reforming sex offenders in the world, with only 4% reoffending within ten ¬not five years of release. As usual, Mr Workman is plucking figures out of thin air. Or to put it more bluntly, making things up.

A 2011 Department of Corrections study shows that 39% – almost ten times what Workman claims – of sex offenders reoffended within five years of release. The picture was slightly better for child – i.e under age 17 – offenders with 30% reoffending within five years. The figure for adult sex offenders was 54%.

These statistics are consistent with other jurisdictions. It must also be noted – and the New Zealand study does – that such stats only include reported cases, and that sex offences have one of the lowest rates of reporting. Therefore, the actual rate of re-offending over the five year period is almost certainly higher – perhaps much higher – than these stats indicate.

To be fair to Mr Workman, the above figures include all sex offenders – those who have been through treatment programs in prison and those who have refused to. I am assuming Workman’s 4% figure is the claimed success rate of graduates of the Kia Marama sex offender program, one of several run in New Zealand prisons.

If Workman’s claims are true, then New Zealand has discovered a wonderfully successful sex offender program which achieves rehabilitation rates far in excess of anywhere else in the world. This is of course possible – the citizens of our little country at the bottom of the world have achieved many things: splitting the atom, climbing Mount Everest first, and possibly flying before the Wright brothers. Or alternatively, perhaps the figures are spun?

Here is one way you can do it. In the first instance, carefully select candidates for the course. The Kia Marama program only takes child sex offenders who, as we have seen, have reoffending rates significantly lower than adult sex offenders. Second, ruthlessly eliminate from the program any offenders who break the rules in any way, even once. That means that those completing the program were the most motivated and least likely to reoffend in the first place. Lastly, closely monitor the graduates so they know their behaviour is being watched.

Even with all this, the Department of Corrections reports a reoffending rate of 10% from Kia Marama – more than twice what Mr Workman told Mark Sainsbury. How can this be? Did those who prepared the evaluation and statistical analysis of Kia Marama for the Department somehow get their figures wrong? Or has Mr Workman once again gilded the lily? You decide.

For what it’s worth, here’s my view. Sex offenders – particularly paedophiles – are primarily born not made. While I am aroused by adult women, and gays are aroused by members of their own sex, paedophiles are aroused by children. I do not believe paedophiles can be “cured” of their arousal triggers any more than I could be “cured” of heterosexuality. In the past, when homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder, a number of treatment programs aimed at changing gays’ orientation were tried. All were a spectacular failure.

Rather than be swayed by smoke screens created by people like Kim Workman, we must accept reality: sex offenders are very difficult to treat, and impossible to cure. The Californians came to this realisation years ago, and built a facility called Coalinga to house those who, because of their perverse sexual urges or ability to control them, would always remain a danger. Incarceration there is not unpleasant – much less arduous than a regular prison. But rather like the Hotel California, you can only check out in a pine box, or by convincing a panel of therapists that you are safe to leave alive. Very few do.

We are slowly but surely moving in the same direction here, with Extended Supervision Orders, and other devices to keep offenders like Stewart Murray Wilson (the Beast of Blenheim) and Lloyd McIntosh – who has a compulsion to molest babies – confined within prison grounds. In the meantime, journalists like Mark Sainsbury – who clearly don’t do even basic research – continue to allow people like Kim Workman to spread misinformation on the wireless.

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