Protecting Society Through Community Corrections

Protecting Society Through Community Corrections

Most of Canada's federal offenders serve only part of their sentences in prison. Part of the time, they serve in the community, adhering to certain conditions and supervised by professional staff of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). On any given day there may be about 14,000 offenders in prison and another 10,000 on some form of conditional release. The work of gradually releasing offenders, making sure they do not present a threat to anyone and helping them adjust to life beyond prison walls is called community corrections. Such work is essential because experience has shown most criminals are more likely to become law-abiding citizens if they participate in a program of gradual, supervised release.

This booklet looks at what community corrections is all about. It discusses the goals, methods of achieving them, people involved and results of this important element of the federal correctional system.

Focus on Public Safety

The Correctional Service of Canada is dedicated to protecting society by controlling offenders and by helping them change the attitudes and behaviours that led them into criminal activity. The first steps towards change are taken in the prison setting. But if the change is to be lasting, it must continue in the community to which almost all offenders eventually return. The transition from confinement to freedom can be difficult, and offenders have a better chance of success if they receive supervision, opportunities, training and support within the community to which they must readjust.

Conditional release occurs only after a thorough assessment of the safety risks that offenders may pose to society. Those who appear unlikely to commit crimes or break certain rules may go on conditional release as a reward for and incentive to making positive changes in their lives. In addition, the law requires release of offenders who have served two third of the sentence, but only if they are not considered dangerous. Both types of offenders must abide by specific conditions when they are back in the community and they are carefully supervised by CSC staff. If offenders violate the rules, they may be sent back to prison. Moreover, CSC works to prepare offenders for eventual release through prison programs that promote law-abiding lifestyles. Such programming continues while offenders are on conditional release.

Types of Release

The different kinds of conditional release are:

Escorted and unescorted temporary absence
These are short absences granted for various reasons including contact with family and medical consultations. Offenders on such leave may be escorted by prison staff or volunteers. Offenders who are unescorted are monitored by community staff.
Program release
Offenders considered low risk are released for longer periods to take part in treatment or educational programs. These releases are granted by either wardens of prisons or a separate agency - the National Parole Board.

The National Parole Board has exclusive authority to grant two other forms of release - day parole and full parole - based on information and assessments prepared by CSC prison and community staff. Before granting such releases, Board members must be satisfied that the offender will not pose undue risk to the community and will fulfill specific conditions.

Day parole
Offenders participate in community-based activities and return nightly to a supervised residence. Day parole generally occurs during a six-month period prior to full parole. It allows offenders to prepare for the next stage in their return to community life.
Full parole
Offenders live by themselves or with their families. Most offenders are eligible for full parole after serving one third of their sentences.

All the above forms of release are granted at the discretion of the National Parole Board or CSC. In addition, Canadian law decrees tow forms of mandatory release.

Statutory release
By law, offenders not considered dangerous must be released after serving two thirds of their sentences. Only those who meet the criteria set to ensure public safety are let out. The National Parole Board may add conditions to those imposed on all offenders to protect society and assist the offender begin a new life. These offenders, like all others on conditional release, are supervised in the community by CSC staff.
Release on expiry of sentence
This is not a conditional release but the full release required when someone has served the entire sentence. It applies to offenders who were considered too dangerous to return to the community under statutory release. In addition, some offenders eligible for conditional release choose to stay in prison until the end of their sentences.

Conditions

When released, all offenders must adhere to certain standard conditions set out in the release certificate. For example, they must travel directly to their homes and report regularly to their parole supervisor. Additional conditions may also be imposed to control behaviour. These may include curfews, restrictions on movement, prohibitions on drinking, and prohibitions on associating with certain people (such as children, former victims, etc.) CSC staff can take action if they believe the offender is violating release conditions or may commit another crime. They can suspend the release and return the offender directly to prison until the risk is reassessed. Some offenders may remain in prison. Others may be released again but under more severe restrictions and after more supervision or community support services are in place.

Managing Risks, Balancing Rights

In doing its work, CSC must take the safety concerns and human rights of many groups into account. These include: the general public, crime victims, CSC staff and even offenders themselves. All these groups have specific needs and rights that must be balanced. Offenders have a right to humane treatment, therefore the Corrections and Conditional Release Act directs CSC not to use measures more restrictive than necessary in administering an offender's sentence. At the same time, other groups must be protected from any safety threats that offenders might pose. Key to achieving the balance is assessing and managing risk. Some offenders are more of a potential danger than others; moreover, an offender's risk potential may change over time and in different situations. Many factors must be weighed in evaluating risk, for example, the offender's criminal record, attitudes, social problems such as substance abuse or family violence, and motivation to change.

As soon s a sentence is imposed, CSC begins assessing risk and preparing for the day the offender will be released. Community staff gather information about the offender from many different sources - families, police, court victims and other members of the public. Information gathering continues throughout the prison term and during conditional release. Such information helps CSC manage offenders while they are in custody, determine readiness for conditional release and monitor and support those who are back in the community.

Risk assessment is by no means an exact science, nevertheless science is involved whenever CSC staff evaluate a case. Staff draw on a large body of research on offenders and sophisticated analytical tools in measuring risk. these tools, along with information files and staff's professional experience and judgment, all come into play. All help in determining how likely it is that an individual can return to the community safely and successfully.

How Community Corrections Works

The Correctional Plan

Before offenders leave prison on conditional release, they agree to a Correctional Plan - a detailed plan of action for maintaining a law-abiding lifestyle. The plan usually involves certain restrictions on movement and actions, as well as commitments to participate in constructive activities - jobs, programs, etc. Since each offender has different needs and problems, each plan is different. The plans focus on the specific issues in each offender's life and draw on a wide network of community support in addressing these. The underlying assumption is that people usually turn to crime because of problems in their lives - for example, lack of job skills, substance abuse, poor control of feelings. Experience shows that, with the right motivation and community support, most offenders can make positive changes.

The Key Activities

Community corrections is a mix of three interrelated activities - supervision, programming and community involvement.

Supervision is the direct monitoring of and communication with offenders. It is carried out by CSC community staff known as parole officers or by trained volunteers, depending on the offender involved. All offenders on conditional release are supervised no matter where they live - whether in the city or remote parts of the country. The degree of supervision will depend on the individual. Offenders considered riskier will require closer monitoring and more frequent contacts. Those who are lower risk, require less. In 'keeping tabs' on offenders, staff rely on an array of information sources - police, families, program staff and so on. By being aware of the offender's situation, staff can help ensure that he/she stays on track. They can take action when the offender breaks rules, or help solve problems that could lead to a crime 'relapse'.

Research shows that supervision alone does not help offenders change. Supervision along with good programming does. Each offender on community releases therefore expected to participate in programs tailored to his/her needs. Some programs help cope with daily living, relationships and emotions. Some upgrade educational skills. Some deal with specific issues such as sexual offenses and alcohol or drug abuse. Programs in the community build on the gains that the offender has already made by taking part in prison programs.

Community involvement is essential to both supervision and programming. CSC staff rely on community contacts for important information on offenders that helps the supervision process. People in the community may find out, for example, that the offender has violated conditions or is in an emotional crisis and relay this information to CSC.

Agencies and individuals in the community also deliver programs or reinforce program activities. They act as counselors, role models and support networks. In addition, community involvement means something larger - the community's willingness to accept back those offenders who reform themselves. Offenders' success in starting afresh depends partly on their own efforts and partly on the opportunities the community at large provides.

The Key Players

Parole Officers

The parole officer is CSC's key link with supervised offenders in the community and crucial to managing offender risk. The job is part police officer, part social worker. It demands diverse professional skills, sound professional judgment and strong personal commitment. Parole officers must be flexible, enforcing strict controls in some cases, acting as counselors in others, depending on each offender's needs. They must be aware of threats to their own safety and take proper precautions, but not be immobilized by these concerns.

Parole work is based on a professional relationship with each offender and on a study of the risk factors that contribute to the individual's criminal behaviour. The parole officer ensures the offender follows his/her Correctional Plan by:

  • regular visits with the offender, with or without warning;
  • contacts with family, police and employers; and
  • checking with persons who may be assisting the offender in a program.

If the offender breaches parole conditions or seems likely to do so, the parole officer can take disciplinary measures, which include sending that person back to jail.

Parole officers are guided in their work by rules and standards. As part of the routine, parole officers write reports on the progress of each offender and discuss cases which require additional attention with their supervisors. Officers work together with many community agencies to help secure stable housing, employment, income and positive personal contacts. Some officers also deliver group programs aimed at helping offenders cope with daily life, substance abuse or a tendency to commit sexual offenses.

Each parole officer is responsible for, on average, a caseload of 25 to 30 offenders. The caseload may be considerably lower, if the offenders require intensive supervision. It may be much higher if some of the day-to-day supervision is by a contracted agency such as the John Howard Society or the Salvation Army or by community volunteers. Contracted supervision is used most often in isolated locations. Some 20% of the 10,000 offenders under CSC jurisdiction are supervised through such contracts.

New parole officers usually must have a university degree, most commonly in criminology or social work. Many enter the parole field after extensive experience in related occupations. Once hired, initial and ongoing training is provided to keep staff current with new information and techniques.

Community Networks

The skills, resources and experiences of many different people are needed to deal with offenders' complex problems and needs. Therefore, CSC draws upon a broad range of organizations and individuals - family members, psychologists, employment counselors, educators, and so on - to assist in community correctional work. Such community networks contribute to both supervision and support.

In some cases, volunteers can play an important role in correctional efforts. They enrich and supplement supervision by establishing positive relationships with offenders, helping them to socialize and providing links to the community. In some parts of the country - usually remote areas - volunteers are used extensively to complement the work of parole officers. Their involvement occurs only after they receive parole officer training.

The Parole Office

CSC operates 64 local parole offices, each responsible for a specific geographical area and the management of offenders within it. An office normally consists of a director, parole officers and support staff. Together with community networks, the local office works to: assess offenders, assist offenders through programs, and ensure that the level of supervision is appropriate to the risks and needs presented by each case. the local parole office is the base from which most of community corrections takes place.

Community-Based Residential Facilities

A Community Residential Facility is a halfway house owned and operated either by a non-governmental agency or by CSC. Each agency-owned facility contracts with CSC to provide accommodation for and counseling and supervision of 15 to 30 offenders who are usually on Day Parole. The contract sets out detailed requirements regarding levels of control and assistance. There are about 150 such under contract annually, preparing offenders for Full Parole - the less structured form of release to the community.

In addition, CSC operates 16 of its own Community Residential Facilities. In these, the director, parole officers and support staff work as a team, often in cooperation with community partners, to supervise and provide programs for offenders and prepare them for Full Parole.

Commitments

The commitments of CSC community corrections towards the public are to:

  1. Assess each offender to determine the level of risk to the public and problem areas to be addressed.
  2. Prepare a Correctional Treatment Plan with each offender to ensure that he or she has the supervision, training, and programming needed to reduce the risk to reoffend.
  3. Suspend the release of any offender believed to be at risk of criminal involvement.
  4. Ensure that information about particular offenders is made available (within the limits of legislation) to police, victims and other legitimate partners in the supervision area.
  5. Supervise each offender by seeing him or her at home and in CSC offices at a frequency that complies with CSC standards for supervision.
  6. Document each offender's case according to CSC policy.

The commitments of CSC community corrections towards their staff are to:

  1. Recognize that the key to success in corrections is competent, committed people.
  2. Encourage a positive, creative, learning atmosphere within which individuals can grow and continuously improve.
  3. Provide training to assist staff in understanding new tools and methods to be used in their work.

The commitments of CSC community corrections towards offenders are to:

  1. Treat each offender with dignity.
  2. Continuously assess each offender to determine his/her level of risk.
  3. Encourage a law-abiding lifestyle.
  4. Assist offenders in re-entering life in the community.
  5. Assist offenders in accessing programs, education or training that promote a law-abiding lifestyle.