New Calgary sex offender treatment program puts focus on higher-risk inmates, psychiatrist says

A new program to treat convicted sex offenders from around Alberta is now up and running at the Calgary Correctional Centre.

Program at Calgary Correctional Centre replaces similar facility in Edmonton that was closed by province

Psychiatrist Dr. Cynthia Baxter, who runs the Rocky Mountain Program for sex offenders at the Calgary Correctional Centre, says the new system will be able to treat more offenders and focus on those who are considered to be at a higher risk of re-offending. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

A new program to treat convicted sex offenders from around Alberta is now up and running at the Calgary Correctional Centre.

It replaces the Phoenix program, a secure, 18-bed treatment program that operated out of the Alberta Hospital in Edmonton until it was closed in March.

Treatment at the Rocky Mountain Program is tailored to a person's risk factors instead of the old, one-size-fits-all approach, said forensic psychiatrist Dr. Cynthia Baxter, who is running the new facility.

"[It] is an evidence-based treatment program that consists of group therapy, significant homework exercises, and augmentation with individual therapy if needed," she said.

"Our philosophy first and foremost is no more victims."

While the old program treated mostly low-risk offenders, Baxter says the new one focuses its resources on higher risk offenders — those with a 20- to 30-per-cent chance of re-offending.

It's hoped the new program can treat at least double the number of offenders as the Phoenix program accommodated.

Focus on higher-risk offenders

"So we're getting higher-risk guys. We're treating more of them. So for public safety this is actually a great improvement in public safety," Baxter said.

Last year, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association was critical of the decision to shut down the Phoenix program — which it called a gold-standard model — and replace it with one in Calgary that would have less intensive, one-on-one therapy and be housed in a correctional centre rather than a hospital.

Treatment at the Rocky Mountain Program at the Calgary Correctional Centre is tailored to a person's risk factors, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, officials say. (Google Maps)

But Kelly Dawson, a director with the association, says some of his concerns have been addressed.

"The government was very forthcoming in terms of meeting with us and getting us some of their research material and their findings to show that this is a bona fide attempt to treat more people as effectively as the Phoenix program with the limited resources that they have in these tough economic times," he said.

"So I'm certainly willing to wait and see."

Baxter says the new program, which has been in the works for many years, will allow clinicians to create treatment programs individualized to an offender's particular risk factors, such as substance abuse.

"The rehabilitation piece is extremely important," Baxter said.

"So if we can demonstrate that we can do these kinds of programs in custody, it's a great model for us to use in other areas of offending as well. So we're hoping that we demonstrate to everybody how well this works and then it catches on so that we can have more rehabilitation programs while people are in custody."

With files from Jennifer Lee