For most of us the biggest concern when an offender is released is the risk that they might reoffend. Except for the small number who are designated dangerous offenders, each person will be granted parole or eventually serve his sentence and be released. In the majority of cases (72%[i]) the offender does not reoffend. For the minority who do pose a risk it is most often sexual offences that are of particular concern for the community.
In some situations the police publish the name of a high risk individual moving to an area to make the community aware of the possible danger. This awareness alone is not enough to ensure community safety. Police and parole officers play an important role in monitoring those who have offended but they cannot provide constant supervision.
Circles of Support and Accountability[ii] is a program that helps fill this void and is very effective in reducing the risk of reoffence.[iii] The program has its roots in Community Chaplaincy in 1993 and has spread across Canada, into the UK and other parts of the world. There are many men who have been positively impacted by CoSA in Peterborough. This success begins, as in the case of Brad, by connection with a support group of 4 to 6 volunteers. With Brad, as with all Core Members of a circle, the level of support is tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual. Typically the contacts are very frequent at the beginning. There are daily telephone calls and face-to-face meetings to ensure that everything is going well. As time passes the frequency of these interactions usually decreases.
The strength of the program is the volunteers. Interactions can often become more relaxed as relationships are built. However, the volunteers always remain aware of what is at stake. The credibility of the program is built on openness and honesty and community safety is the bottom line. It does not take any special skills or abilities on the part of the volunteers but these are very special people. In many cases people like Brad would tell you they feel like they have been adopted into a new family.
The level of trust that is built over time can be a strong motivator for the individual. While there is a great deal of care and compassion demonstrated by the volunteers there is also the understanding of strict accountability on the part of the Core Member. If he fails to meet the expectations placed on him or does something to violate a condition set by the courts he understands that he will be held accountable not only to his circle but to the authorities as well.
In conjunction with helping agencies and the community chaplain, the Circles provide assistance to the Core Member in meeting many re-entry challenges. The program has a proven track record and its success in Peterborough has been overwhelming.