CanadaMANDEL: Ontario’s probation system is a joke

Michele Mandel, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:48 PM ET

We’ve never done a very good job of watching pedophiles like Frank Cunningham.

After serving four months for sexually assaulting his girlfriend’s daughter, he was given two years of probation where he wasn’t to use a computer to be in contact with anyone under 14.

Just a month after his release, those probation conditions weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Cunningham was nabbed by police trying to lure a child online. After his recent third conviction, the East Gwillimbury man was declared a dangerous offender and when he completes his sentence, he’ll be released back into the community on a number of “strict conditions.”

Why doesn’t that inspire me with a whole lot of confidence?

As a recent Global News investigation found, the probation system in this province is a joke – it’s a 9-to-5 operation that relies largely on the offenders promising to comply with their release conditions and rarely any compliance checks to make sure that they do.

It’s quite the honour system. And when these offenders fail to comply – one of the most common criminal charges on the books – no one seems to care. In an overburdened judiciary, the ministry has signalled that they’re clogging up the courts.

“They’d prefer they weren’t laid. They want them to disappear,” said a crown attorney who didn’t want his name used. “We often just dump a lot of those breaches. You have to bring the probation officer in and go through the whole nine yards. In the old days, a breach would attract a minimum of 30 days (in custody). That’s not the case anymore. Jail isn’t usually on the table at all.”

Surely, judges assume that when they craft their sentences – ordering a sex offender to stay off a computer or abide by a strict curfew, for example – someone will follow through and ensure those orders are followed. Certainly, the public expects that to be the case. But we are all sorely mistaken. “Those things are almost impossible to enforce,” says the prosecutor. “Nobody’s monitoring anything too closely.”

Is it all just a charade?

On an average day, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is responsible for supervising about 44,000 offenders, which include those on probation, conditional sentences, parole and temporary absences. In a scathing 2014 report, Ontario’s auditor general found “probation and parole officers did not use effective measures to ensure that more stringent conditions imposed on offenders, such as curfews and house arrest, were enforced.”

Unlike American TV, Ontario probation officers rarely make house visits for security reasons – they’re not armed like their American counterparts – and if they were even so inclined, ministry guidelines prevent them from doing spot checks outside of regular business hours. As for high risk offenders, they can only check on them in the company of police.

No wonder a sex offender in the Global series said “If I were a real molester I would go back and do things because nobody watched me, nobody hits on my door.”

The state of supervision is so poor that the auditor general found 60.3% of offenders considered at very high risk to re-offend went on to commit another crime. Her report complained that lower-risk offenders were often over-supervised and higher-risk offenders were under-supervised by probation and parole officers not sufficiently trained to oversee them.

Scott McIntyre of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union accuses the ministry of drinking “the rehabilitation Kool-Aid” and handcuffing them to their desks where their job is only about counselling offenders, not keeping them in line. “The government has exchanged our badges for lab coats,” complains the long-time probation officer.

“There has to be accountability. When the judiciary puts conditions on offenders to protect the public, such as curfews and house arrest, that isn’t rehabilitative. There has to be an expectation that there’s a system in place to monitor those conditions. And there isn’t.”

Instead, they wait for the offenders to come to their offices and rely in large part on what they are told. And these aren’t the most trustworthy members of society.

McIntyre tells his rookies to imagine the public is in that office watching them. “You’re sitting in front of an offender who is probably very manipulative and they’re going to try this on you,” he tells them. “Always take a step back and ask what would the public expect. If this guy you’re putting trust in lies, and something happens and there’s an inquest, you’re done. The public’s going to cook you.”

Who’s checking to see if they’re telling the truth? No one.

McIntyre would like to see government resources earmarked for an armed compliance unit that can safely do spot checks to see if that sex offender really doesn’t have a computer at home or a girlfriend’s child living in his house. They obviously can’t be everywhere, but just the chance that they might stop by would act as a deterrent – where today there is none.

“Our message is that we will continue to provide excellent rehabilitation services to our clients,” he said, “but if they should go off track, they should know that we will look for them and bring them back into the system.”

And maybe then, serial sex offenders like Frank Cunningham would think twice.