A call for the release of PAR program data: Forstner
By Peter Small, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor
Domestic violence defendants are being asked to take counselling programs that are often unnecessary and can even be harmful, says Oshawa criminal lawyer Lawrence Forstner.
Ontario Crown prosecutors are requesting that many accused persons take a Partner Assault Response (PAR) program in return for their domestic violence charges being dropped, even when the evidence against them is weak, he tells AdvocateDaily.com.
“The PAR program often is the first line of resolutions that the Crown will go to when they have a case that is a first-time charge,” says Forstner, principal of Forstner Law.
“Maybe their evidence isn’t all that strong. Maybe they don’t think it’s extremely serious, so they suggest, ‘Well, take our program and when you’re done, we’ll give you a peace bond and the charge will be withdrawn,’” he says.
Prosecutors seem to be reluctant to take the "politically unthinkable step" of unconditionally withdrawing a domestic assault charge even when the prospects of conviction are low, Forstner says. They worry that if the accused is discharged without treatment and goes on to injure or kill his partner they will be held responsible, he adds.
So they often insist on the accused taking the program, Forstner says. “It’s an escape hatch.”
They also frequently include the PAR program in a plea deal, requiring the defendant to take the course in return for a conditional discharge or a suspended sentence instead of jail, he says.
The programs, part of Ontario’s Domestic Violence Court Program, are specialized group educational and counselling courses offered by community-based agencies to people accused of assaulting their partners, Forstner says. Each course takes about 12 weeks, he adds.
But Forstner says he isn't aware of any evidence that the program, used indiscriminately, is effective.
In fact, it may even be counterproductive when forced on low risk-defendants, he adds.
Forstner, who worked as a parole and probation officer with the Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services before becoming a lawyer, says one of the principles of effective correctional intervention is that you give more attention to the person with higher risks and needs.
“In fact, if you give a great deal of intensive intervention to people at low risk to reoffend you can actually increase their likelihood of committing an offence in the future,” he says.
The Ministry of the Attorney General is sitting on a pile of statistical information — including recidivism rates — that could shed light on whether the PAR program is effective, says Forstner, a former assistant Crown attorney. But the ministry has not made the data public, he says.
Forstner says he has spoken privately with officials at the Ministry of the Attorney General who admit the statistics are not encouraging. “They know that the PAR program has major flaws because of how it’s targeted and they know the statistics on what effect it has at the end. And they’re not very good,” he says.
Forstner says he had several clients accused of domestic assault whose partners have recanted almost immediately and where the Crown has little hope of successfully prosecuting the case.
However, the Crown refused to unconditionally withdraw the charges and instead requested the accused take a PAR program and sign a peace bond, he says.
“It left those people feeling that they have to take the program even though they’re not guilty,” Forstner says.
Taking a PAR program and signing a peace bond carry no official admission of civil or criminal liability but still can result in serious negative repercussions, he says. People are regularly denied a firearms licence or are barred from entering the United States as a result, he adds. “It’s a major stigma.”
Defendants who refuse to take a PAR program often suffer serious consequences, even when their partner recants, Forstner says. It may take a year for the charges to be dropped, and meanwhile, the accused is left hanging and is barred from seeing their partner, he says.
The Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services, which oversees PAR programs for offenders when imposed as part of parole or probation conditions, has considerable expertise in treating domestic violence offenders that would benefit the Ministry of the Attorney General, he says.
But a silo mentality in the Ontario government prevents the two ministries from effectively joining forces on this issue, says Forstner.
“I think releasing the information and focusing on the data would be something that the two ministries could be doing hand in hand,” he says.