Offender reintegration is an essential part of Australian correctional programs that authorities must enforce in order for prisoners to successfully enter back into communities and reduce recidivism rates after imprisonment. Offender reintegration focuses on the psychosocial transition from an offender to a law-abiding citizen and is concerned with issues such as poverty, education, family and community support, housing, stigma and labelling (Hardcastle, et al. , 2011).
The term reintegration represents social inclusion, or productive membership back into the community. Nearly all offenders return into the community at some point and therefore it is important that these offenders have a smooth transition and are assisted in gaining access to education, employment and housing. Previous personal vulnerabilities such as mental illness or substance abuse as well as many other influences can hinder this process. In order for a transition to be successful, prisoners must participate in programs whilst still in prison and then be further observed as the long process from imprisonment back in to the real world takes place. The main aim of offender reintegration is reducing recidivism rates in order to protect the community and in the long term run this keeps previous offenders out of jail and ultimately reduces costs in relation to keeping an offender in jail. Circles of Support and Accountability is one program in particular that targets offenders and their reintegration back into communities. Circles of Support and Accountability are groups of volunteers with professional supervision to support ex sex offenders.
Evaluations of COSA indicates that participation can result in statistically significant reductions in repeat sexual offenses in seventy percent of cases. COSA projects exist throughout Canada, the United Kingdom, some regions of the United States and is gaining prominence in Australia. Offender reintegration is the successful transition of an offender from prison back into society following imprisonment. For those who are sentenced to imprisonment, it includes correctional programs in prison, and aftercare interventions. Offender reintegration is a process which can be broken up into three parts, firstly rehabilitation programs must be undertaken whilst the offender is in prison to give them a better mindset. Secondly programs must be specifically focused on preparation for release and finally programs, support and supervision must be given following release. Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) is one program that assists in reintegrating ex-offenders back into communities. The program involves four to six trained volunteers from the community and they specifically target ex child sex offenders. COSA is based on restorative justice principles. The circle receives support and training from professionals, who form the outer circle whilst the ex-offender is called the core member. The inner circle is directly involved and meets regularly to facilitate the core member’s practical needs such access to medical services, social assistance, employment and housing for example. They also help to provide emotional support, develop constructive and pro-social strategies to address everyday problems and to challenge the behaviours and attitudes of the core member that may be associated with his or her offending cycle. COSA emerged in Canada during 1994 in response to the planned release of a high-profile, repeat child sex offender Charlie Taylor.
Charlie, who was due to be released at his Warrant Expiry Date in Hamilton, Ontario. Being released meant that Charlie, who had served his entire sentence in prison rather than serving a proportion of it under supervision in the community, would have no parole officer with whom to meet, and he would have no conditions on his community interactions other than those that apply to all citizens. COSA has two main objectives which are to reintegrate child sex offenders into the community and to reduce the sexual victimisation of children. At any moment, the inner circle can report concerns about risk to the circle coordinator and the professionals who, if necessary can take appropriate measures to prevent re-offending. Circles last as long as necessary, usually at least one to one and a half years, but can also last longer. Circles of support and accountabilities effectiveness has been tested in order seek whether the programs should be encouraged in different parts of the world. Two evaluations of COSA have been conducted in Canada. During the first study, sixty high-risk offenders participated in COSA programs in the South-Central Ontario region and sixty high-risk offenders did not participate. The offenders were matched on a number of key criteria, including risk level, exposure time and whether the offender had participated in sexual offender treatment. In this study, recidivism was defined as having a new sexual offense, or having breached a condition imposed by the court.
A more recent study replicated Wilsons 2005 original study by using data on high-risk child sex offenders from across Canada, instead of limiting the study to one geographical area, Wilson matched forty-four COSA participants with forty-four non-COSA participant offenders. The two cohorts were matched again on the same range of factors. Both studies found that COSA participants had significantly lower rates of recidivism than offenders in the other group. Wilsons original study found that COSA participants had seventy percent less sexual recidivism than offenders who did not participate in a COSA and in the more recent study, Wilson found that COSA participants had 83 percent less sexual recidivism than non-participants of COSA. Both studies also found that where sexual reoffending did occur, COSA participants committed less serious offences than their original offence in which they had spent time in prison for. For example, the new offence of one of the COSA participants, whose original offence had been rape, was making an indecent telephone call. It was also discovered that no function of a lesser crime was found in the group that didn’t participate in COSA, as their new offenses were just as violent as their most original offense. One limitation of these studies is that they rely on official data on criminal charges and convictions to measure recidivism of offender. It has been documented however, that sexual offences against children are often not reported. This is likely to be the case for both COSA participants and members of the comparison groups in both of the studies. However, research on COSA in the United Kingdom has identified this limitation and has adopting a broader definition of recidivism and examines not only formally documented rearrests or reconvictions, but also pro-offending behaviour among offenders participating in COSA.
For example, a study on COSA in the Thames Valley by Quaker Peace and Social Witness (2005) found that although none of the twenty COSA participants were reconvicted of a new sexual offence during the period under consideration, eight demonstrated behaviours that were identified as pro-offending. In one case, a COSA participant was found to be grooming underage girls in internet chat rooms, another secretly purchased a car, which had been his particular strategy for previous abduction offences. This research indicates that while many offenders who participate in a COSA do not reoffend sexually some exhibit what Neale describes as precursory behaviours. Volunteers were able to alert the authorities about specific behaviours that the COSA had identified as belonging to the offending pattern of the offender in these cases. These decisions, many of which resulted in offenders being returned to prison, might be considered a success rather than a failure of COSA. This is because, although offenders were not successfully reintegrated back into the community, the actions of COSA volunteers contributed towards preventing sexual recidivism and therefore contributed towards the safety of the community. The existing evidence about circles of support and accountability reducing recidivism of child sex offenders is very promising. Where studies have been undertaken significant reductions in reoffending among those who participate in COSA have been found. This is not to suggest, however, that COSA shouldn’t be studied further into. Given COSA heavily relies on volunteers, it is important to consider the landscape of volunteering in Australia, which may differ from that of international jurisdictions in which COSA currently operates. Volunteer recruitment is considered one of the primary struggles of COSA. If appropriate volunteers cannot be recruited, trained and retained, COSA cannot function successfully. If one or more Australian jurisdictions are to pilot COSA, it is vital that thought be given to this issue.
One reason for the reluctance of Australian jurisdictions to implement COSA may be concern about the response of the community and/or the media to this seemingly controversial initiative. It should be recognised in relation to this concern that community fear of and anger towards child sex offenders is by no means unique to Australia. Those jurisdictions in which COSA have been implemented internationally have also experienced community outrage about the release of high-risk child sex offenders, including picketing and vigilante attacks against offenders. In the United Kingdom, for example, a number of innocent people have been killed as a result of attacks on suspected or convicted child sex offenders. Community response to COSA has, however, been overwhelmingly positive in those locations in which COSA already exist. As Nellis (2009) claims, even bad press usually results in expressions of support from the community and assists COSA programs with finding and recruiting volunteers.
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