Nearly 21 years ago in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and handful of brave community members sparked an innovative approach to the post-release community integration of high-risk sexual offenders. Charlie Taylor was a repeat sexual offender at the end of his sentence, about to re-enter a community that was more than a little anxious about him. In Canada, offenders are ordinarily released prior to the end of their sentences, in order to facilitate re-entry and to ensure that services and risk reduction frameworks are in place before the offender is no longer subject to aftercare efforts. This was not the case with Charlie. There were no plans, no assurances, and no foreseeable future. Charlie would need to fly without a net.
A group of Mennonite volunteers led by the Reverend Harry Nigh encircled Charlie. These volunteers (aptly referred to as Charlie’s Angels), ultimately gave Charlie the opportunity to return to the community safely while also providing a possible solution to the dilemma of what to do with high-risk sexual offenders once their sentences have ended. That solution has ultimately come to be known as Circles of Support & Accountability (CoSA) – a made-in-Canada solution. CoSA is now spreading to other countries with the same core premise, but via different operating models, different funding streams, and different relationships to their respective criminal justice systems. These other jurisdictions include Europe (UK, Netherlands, Lativa, Belgium, Spain, France and Hungary, with Northern Ireland potentially in the pipeline) and the USA (California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) with differing levels of interest and/or implementation from New Zealand, Republic of Ireland and Australia.
Working with people who have engaged in sexual violence is challenging at the best of times, and many practitioners recognize that their efforts may be poorly understood (and often misunderstood). We continue to live in a society that is more strongly inclined toward punitive approaches, in spite of years of research showing that such endeavors are less likely to return positive outcomes than those in which human service delivery is front and center. Imagine trying to explain to your friends and family why you choose to volunteer to assist a child sexual abuser in his return to the community? Blank stares, incredulity and, sometimes, hostility may result.
However, that’s exactly what hundreds of ordinary community members have been doing over the past 20 years – volunteering their valuable personal time to make sure that a high risk sexual offender makes a safe and secure landing in the community after release. Research published to date has looked at both the quantitative (differential reoffense rates) and the qualitative (how it works and why) elements of CoSA (link to references). Generally, significant differences in post-release outcomes have been observed for released offenders involved in a CoSA, whether the study has used a matched comparison design or a randomized controlled trial. Findings of four studies from three countries (Canada, UK, USA) have found similar effects on recidivism of approximately the same order – roughly 70% less sexual reoffending.
Admittedly, the research curve for CoSA is on the upswing, with projects only recently being able to share data and experience. What has been demonstrated so far is quite encouraging, but critics fairly note that more research is needed. However, away from the risk-based approach to evaluation, research from the UK shows that CoSA plays a practical and applied role in support to statutory sex offender supervision in the community. Some critics have questioned the methods involved in researching CoSA, but it is likely that creating rigorous evaluation schemes may be outside of the purview or capacity of many of the community based organizations that provide CoSA opportunities. To be fair, the science of sexual violence management is also quite young, with many commonly touted initiatives being far from well-supported by research. As famed criminologist Paul Gendreau has observed, social significance can sometimes trump statistical significance.
Currently, the SMART Office (through the Office of Justice Programs) in the United States has become the largest single funder of CoSA projects in the USA, while Circles-UK is well-established as a national charity, and Circles4EU supports project development in Europe.
Curiously, in Canada – the birthplace of CoSA – significant concerns remain about the long-term viability of the model. The Canadian federal government has recently decided not to fund CoSA beyond one already existing contract, which is set to end within 24 months, not to be renewed; the result being that many established projects may have to close their doors. Canadian government officials assert that there is no legal mandate to provide any service to offenders beyond the umbrella of an existing sentence; however, this was exactly the same set of circumstances that led to the creation of CoSA in the first place. In many respects, Canada is returning to pre-CoSA policy and practice – or, at least, that’s what will happen if the government continues with its refusal to fund CoSA.
Even more curious, CoSA in Canada is just coming off a successful five years of project development, using federal funding. Essentially, the government provided funding and assistance for both project development and program evaluation research, only to decide not to maintain what has since been demonstrated as an essential part of a broader sexual violence prevention movement. The evaluation completed with this funding is clear:
What CoSA does really well, is to help core members transition from incarceration to living within a community, helping to meet their basic physical, emotional, and social needs, providing role modeling of healthy, prosocial behaviors, and ultimately building social capital. Based on principles of a general personality and social psychology of criminal conduct, and social network theory, we can make clear connections between initial influencing variables (where the core member comes from, etc.), the structure and characteristics that define the circle, the circle dynamics themselves, leading to specified outcomes, which also include varying levels of integration for core members.
Ultimately, returning to the days of high-risk sexual offenders re-entering the community at the end of their prison sentences without the support of people to whom they can be accountable or with whom they can plan for the future is unconscionable. Human history is noteworthy for the fact that people helping others is always preferable to punishment in the long run. We hope and trust that, setting ideological beliefs and arguments aside, common sense – aided by the best available science – will prevail.
Robin J. Wilson, Ph.DAndrew McWhinnie, M.A.
David Prescott, LISCW
Kieran McCartan, Ph. D