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Today's Big Story

A Problem From Hell

What do you do with rapists who have served their time?

By Richard Warnica 6 Mar 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Controversy continues to swirl in greater Vancouver over the so-called "balcony rapist," a convicted sex-offender who relocated to the GVRD after serving a 20-year prison sentence in Ontario for multiple violent rapes committed in Toronto in the mid 1980s.

Paul Callow, 52, was released on Feb. 23 after having served every day of his 20-year term. That same Friday, Surrey RCMP issued a public warning, informing the public that Callow intended to make his home there. Since then reporters and protesters have dogged Callow's every step, tracking his move from Surrey to New Westminster and making it clear that, not surprisingly, no one wants a violent rapist living in their neighbourhood.

Underlying the Callow story are questions without easy answers: how should society treat sex offenders -- rapists, pedophiles, etcetera -- after their sentences have been served? How do you balance the right of the community to be safe with the rights of former criminals to a life after jail?

Canada already has so-called violent offender laws that allow some repeat offenders to be locked up indefinitely. The Conservatives introduced legislation to make those provisions easier to use last year, but the bill remains stalled.

In some United States, though, a whole other process exists just for sex offenders. A New York Times investigation, part three of which appears in today's paper, revealed that some 2,700 sexual offenders in 19 states are "being held indefinitely, mostly in special treatment centres, under so-called civil commitment programs."

The goal of the centres is to keep people like Callow off the streets, but out of jail, until they've been proven safe. In practice though, they are fraught with problems as the first story in the Times series reveals:

...in state after state, such expectations have fallen short. The United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the laws in part because their aim is to furnish treatment if possible, not punish someone twice for the same crime. Yet only a small fraction of committed offenders have ever completed punishment to the point where they could be released free and clear.

Leroy Hendricks, a convicted child molester in Kansas, finished his prison term 13 years ago, but he remains locked up at a cost to taxpayers in that state of $185,000 a year -- more than eight times the cost of keeping someone in prison there.

Mr. Hendricks, who is 72 and unsuccessfully challenged his confinement in the Supreme Court, spends most days in a wheelchair or leaning on a cane, because of diabetes, circulation ailments and the effects of a stroke. He may not live long enough to "graduate" from treatment.

Few ever make such progress: nationwide, of the 250 offenders released unconditionally since the first law was passed in 1990, about half of them were let go on legal or technical grounds unrelated to treatment.

One of the big problems with keeping someone incarcerated until they're no longer a threat, whether in "treatment" or in jail, is that for many offenders, that time may never come. Paul Callow admitted as much in an interview with The Globe and Mail's Jonathan Woodward.

"There is no cure," Callow said. "But I've worked so much and gone through so many changes in jail [that] it's up to me whether I'm going to allow this to happen or not."  [Tyee]

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