It is not often I agree with the Conservative’s dumb on crime agenda, but when the government announced last week it will stiffen penalties for child sex offenders I found myself thinking, “good.”
When I say I agree, though, I have to qualify it by saying I agree in principle because I do have some reservations about the specifics.
The first issue is the oft-touted rationale for tougher penalties that recidivism among sex offenders is almost universal. While one 2004 Canadian study (Langevin et. al.) suggested the rate of recidivism may be as high as 88 per cent, it has largely been discredited.
There is very little actual evidence that sex offenders are any more likely to reoffend than other criminals. In fact, Corrections Canada reports, “The overall recidivism rate for sexual offenders is less than all offenders in general.”
Furthermore, a recent meta-analysis of the literature by Robert Di Fazio of the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario concluded that, “Incarceration, or any other penalty the criminal justice system can impose, has proven to be a largely ineffective deterrent and incapable of changing sex offenders’ behaviour. What has been found to be effective, in concert with the role played by the criminal justice system, is treatment.”
Of course, deterrence is only one of six purposes of sentencing as set out in the Criminal Code. Society’s repugnance for the particularly heinous sex crimes against children clearly points to the purpose of denunciation. I rarely advocate for incarceration as a purely punitive exercise, but in sex crimes involving children, I believe it is appropriate.
Still, I don’t like taking discretion out of the hands of judges. Sex crimes and sex offenders are extremely heterogenous and mandatory minimum prison terms, while satisfying the public appetite for vengeance, are not a solution to the problem.
The key here is making sure we are doing enough on the other end of incarceration to protect society from a potential relapse of the behaviour.
Corrections Canada rightfully focuses on relapse prevention and must continue improving that process. My fear, as always, is that tougher penalties is a bandage, not a cure that will obscure efforts to address the problem.