Politics

The hurdles to housing a sex offender

Corrections is in the spotlight after placing a child sex offender in a motel housing vulnerable families, a sign of a wider problem it faces. Dozens of houses may have to be built on prison land as the housing crisis and community opposition bite, Sam Sachdeva reports.

News a child sex offender was placed in a motel housing vulnerable families by the Department of Corrections has created a predictable outcry.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told Stuff the lack of information sharing which led to Ronald Jeffries’ accommodation while under a 10-year extended supervision order was “totally unacceptable”, while the motel’s residents expressed their shock at the news.

Yet Jeffries’ case speaks volumes about the difficulties that Corrections officials find themselves in, as they try to find accommodation for offenders who nobody wants nearby.

An April briefing from Corrections to Davis highlighted growing public opposition to child sex offenders living in their community, along with “the wider housing crisis”, as challenges to managing their release.

An almost impossible task

Sociologist Jarrod Gilbert, a member of the Government’s criminal justice advisory group, says officials face an almost impossible task in trying to house child sex offenders.

“If they’re housed in the community there’s an uproar, if they’re put in a motel because they’ve got nowhere else to put them, there’s an uproar - the country needs to have a conversation about how this plays out.”

Glen Buckner, the Salvation Army’s national operations manager of reintegration services, says the people he works with tend to fall to the bottom of the list given housing shortages around the country.

That makes it difficult to find them a home, doubly so given the need for it to be near support services and not in remote areas which can further isolate them.

A Corrections briefing suggested community opposition to sex offender placement was out of proportion to the actual risk. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“It’s all good and well giving somebody a house, but they need to feel comfortable and not so vulnerable themselves in the community.”

The Corrections briefing said community opposition, “while understandable”, was out of proportion to the actual risk opposed by child sex offenders.

“Most child sex offenders are able to live a low-risk, offence-free life back in the community with support and guidance from Corrections and police.”

According to a 2017 analysis, there was a 5.7 percent rate of re-imprisonment for child sex offenders in the year following their release (although the briefing offered the caveat that sexual offending tended to be less frequently reported, prosecuted, and convicted than other offences).

Education, leadership needed

Both Gilbert and Buckner agree that more community education is needed to help people understand the actual level of risk posed.

“You’re dealing with very difficult issues which, again completely understandably, create a heightened sense of emotion…[but] clearly at a certain point, the community concern and reality is out of kilter, so something has to give there,” Gilbert says.

Beyond that, he believes politicians and other leaders need “to stand up and say what they’ll say in private...that we need to look at this in a mature way”, instead of worrying about what voters will do.

Buckner says officials and support services need to be “front-footing” the issue, doing plenty of work to ensure accommodation is suitable and trying to reduce the “fear factor” for communities.

But that education may take time, so Corrections has been forging ahead with an alternative option - housing more offenders on prison land.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis says community safety is his top priority when it comes to housing offenders on their release. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The briefing said the measure had been used on a small scale for “complex cases” where community-based accommodation was not viable: there were about 20 offenders currently housed on prison land across four different sites.

However, there was scope for Corrections to gradually expand the number of houses on prison land, possibly in partnership with Housing New Zealand, to meet the accommodation and support gap - between 50 and 75 houses could be needed over time, the briefing said.

Buckner says this will not be an option for every sex offender, while Gilbert worries about the “institutionalisation” of those forced to live on prison grounds even after they are released.

The housing plans were presented to Davis as part of work on a wider review of how offenders were placed in the community, due to be presented to him in June.

However, Corrections deputy national commissioner Andy Milne says the inquiry is still ongoing, and separate to a review of its use of motels following the Jeffries story.

Milne says the department has nearly doubled its spending on accommodation and support services, to over $7 million a year, as a result of housing shortages, while this year’s Budget included $57m for housing and support services over the next four years.

Communities top priority - Davis

Speaking to Newsroom , Davis acknowledges accommodation is an extremely difficult issue for Corrections, with community safety its primary priority.

“Corrections doesn't have any say as to who is released from prison, we just want to make sure communities are safe and the best way we’ve found to do it really is start providing the accommodation ourselves.”

While Davis has expressed his concerns about the motel situation, he and Milne both point out that some offenders would be homeless if they couldn’t be put into temporary accommodation - an equally undesirable situation.

Some of the thousands who are released from prison every year will have to live in the community, but building on Corrections land makes sense for child sex offenders given community concern, he says.

“We don’t really want Corrections land to become whole communities where offenders feel like they’re still in prison...because they are free people, but we have to look at every situation to make sure communities are safe.”

Davis acknowledges Gilbert’s concerns about institutionalisation are valid, but suggests there is little other choice in some situations.

“We don’t really want Corrections land to become whole communities where offenders feel like they’re still in prison...because they are free people, but we have to look at every situation to make sure communities are safe.”

He seems relaxed about delays with the review, saying the work is “something that can’t be rushed”.

But the issue is a taste of the difficult balancing act the Government will face as it tries to reform the criminal justice system - set to be in the spotlight at the Criminal Justice Summit next week.

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