From actress to activist

BARRY’S BAY – Samantha Brownlee (nee Balemba) is beautiful, intelligent and passionate.

At 27-years of age, the Simon Fraser University criminology PhD student and part-time actress is navigating the glossy world of film and the underside of society’s most reviled criminals. This dichotomy however, didn’t enter the conversation as she spoke with The Valley Gazette during the week of September 3.
Brownlee grew-up in Bancroft, the youngest of three children to Stan and Donna Balemba (nee Prince).
Barry’s Bay was a family destination and Brownlee and her brother and sister spent a good part of many summers staying with their grandmother, Iris Prince, now deceased.
Among her favourite memories of the area, are fishing off the dock and swimming at the beach. It was here, she said, that she caught her first fish – a sunfish.
Her father, a police officer of more than 30 years in the community where she was raised, was a fair man.
“He never came home with the attitude that everyone should just go to jail, there were times when he said, ‘this kid just needs to change his life’,” Brownlee relayed.
After seven years of higher education, several research papers and overwhelming evidence of support, Brownlee believes the same thing.
“Harsher penalties do not stop crime,” she declared.
“Take an 18 or 19-year-old caught with some marijuana. When we put him in prison for a first-time offence, he comes out with a criminal record, time spent in prison and less opportunity and is more likely to re-offend. Instead, put him into a drug rehabilitation program, help develop a skill set, gain self-esteem and integrate successfully into society,” she explained.
Brownlee is concerned that current public policy does not reflect substantiated evidence from accredited criminologists and finds the situation frustrating.
“Yes, some people need to go to prison, but there are some very good restorative justice programs out there,” she added.
Brownlee joined the volunteers at Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) two years ago.
The community-based initiative operates on restorative justice principles. The volunteer run organization assists people who have served a prison sentence for a sexual offence(s) and request CoSA’s help to prevent further offending through accountability and support.
“Sex offenders are the bottom of the pile. They are the worst of the worst and they need the most help. If I can make any amount of difference, stop one person from offending or re-offending… The hope, the overall goal is to reduce sex offending,” she said of her work with CoSA.
Former offenders, referred to as core members, who typically have little or no community support and are considered a high-risk to re-offend, participate voluntarily and must commit to leading a positive, crime-free life.
The core member and three to five community volunteers comprise the circle. They meet as a group on a regular basis to support the core members community reintegration by facilitating practical needs such as access to medical services, social assistance, employment, affordable housing and by providing a consistent network of emotional support.
Story continues in the September 12, 2012 issue of The Valley Gazette.