Circles of Support – A new effective treatment for sex offenders

On a summer day in 1994, the residents of a small city in Ontario, Canada, became aware of a particularly high-risk repeat child molester who was being released per his sentence expiration. Upset and fearful of the potential danger this man posed, the community’s truculent response, consisting of picketing, 24-hour police surveillance, and intense media coverage, created considerable upheaval. Surprisingly, it was Harry Nigh, a Mennonite pastor of a local congregation, who successfully quelled the public’s unease. Nigh publically agreed to take the high risk offender under his congregation’s wing and provide social support and accountability through increased supervision and moral guidance. The intervention was a success. Following a similar situation a short time later, the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario sponsored a project called the Community Reintegration Project. This marked the birth of a new form of treatment for sexual offenders known as Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA).

Since then, Canada has established numerous COSA programs, with several programs emerging in the U.S. and the United Kingdom (Wilson, 2005). Results from research conducted on COSA programs in Canada has consistently suggested this model works in terms of reducing sexual reoffending. Wilson (2005) assessed 60 sexual offenders participating in COSA pilot project with 60 matched control offenders. He found recidivism of all times to be significantly lower in the COSA group than the control group.

In a follow up to the pilot study, Wilson (2009) examined a sample of 44 sexual offenders participating in COSA programs all over Canada with a matched control sample. The results were staggering: Wilson found the COSA group had 83% less sexual reoffending, 73% less violent reoffending, and 71% less general reoffending. In America, a random controlled trial assessed the effectiveness of a COSA program in Minnesota (Duwe, 2013). The results showed the COSA participants had lower rates of recidivism than the control group. In addition, Duwe (2013) found the COSA program to be more cost-effective to implement than other types of treatment, largely due to its reliance on volunteers and community supervision.

Each COSA program consists of an inner and outer circle of individuals (Wilson & McWhinnie, 2010). The inner circle is comprised of the Core Member (the ex-offender receiving the intervention) and 4 to 6 community member volunteers to act as supports for the Core Member. Volunteers are trained so that they able to uphold to their responsibilities safely and effectively. The outer circle consists of mental health professionals such as psychologists and parole officers, who act in accordance with post-release policies. The figure below illustrates the two circles.

COSA_diagram

Source: Wilson, 2005, p. 4.

The first phase of the program (60-90 days after release) involves intensive supervision with at least one program volunteer meeting with the Core Member daily as well as additional members of inner circle making contact weekly. In addition, each Core Member meets with his post-release management team of professionals (i.e., parole officer) regularly. Accordingly, each Core Member not only has increased supervision by regular meetings with volunteers, but also has social support to aid with finding employment, housing, and overcoming the many challenges reintegration poses.

Inspired by the success of COSA programs, SORL directors Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic and Dr. Cynthia Calkins are conceptualizing a new project based on the COSA model. Although still in the incipient stages of development, the project hopes to have newly released sexual offenders meet regularly with a team of trained SORL lab masters and doctorate students who will help foster prosocial attitudes, provide social support, and assist with everyday integration tasks and challenges. Data would be gathered throughout the duration of the project in order to evaluate its effectiveness and determine the needs of reintegrating offenders.

The COSA model is still very new and has a long way to come before it can be implemented on a large scale. However, the limited evidence gathered thus far suggests these types of programs have the potential to be very effective at reducing recidivism and have the ability to save resource-strapped municipalities much needed money. Undoubtedly, this model will grow in popularity, allowing more evidence to support its usefulness as a treatment for sexual offenders.

 

References:

Duwe, G. (2013). What works with sex offenders? Results from an evaluation of Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability. Corrections Today, 75, 32 – 34. Retrieved from http://www.doc.state.mn.us/pages/files/large-files/Publications/9-12MnCOSAResearchinBrief.pdf

Wilson, R. J., Cortoni, F. & McWhinnie, A. J. (2009). Circles of support & accountability: A Canadian national replication of outcome findings. Sex Abuse, 21, 412-430. doi: 10.1177/1079063209347724

Wilson, R.J. & McWhinnie, A.J. (2010). Circles of Support & Accountability: An innovative approach to community-based risk management for high-risk sexual offenders. In Herzog-Evans, M. (ed.), Transnational criminology manual (pp. 241-260). Oisterwijk, Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishing. Retrieved from: http://www.robinjwilson.com/circles.shtml#articles

Wilson, R.J., Picheca, J.E. & Prinzo, M. (2005). Circles of Support & Accountability: An evaluation of the pilot project in south-central Ontario (Research Report No. R-168. Retrived from http://www.robinjwilson.com/circles.shtml#articles

 

Questions? Comments? Want more information? Email the author at john.vaccaro@jjay.cuny.edu

 

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