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Review: A community-based approach to the reduction of sexual re-offending: circles of support and accountability

January 29, 2012

The story begins in Canada, with healing circles used in indigenous cultures and the concern of the Mennonite Church. A sex offender, high-risk yet vulnerable, was due to be released with no support, but the church of  the Revd Harry Nigh accepted him into their community on the understanding that they would also hold him accountable. There was an outcry, but Nigh invited protesters into his church and his circle of support and accountability was agreed to.  Two of the authors of this book work for the organization, Hanvey as chief executive and Wilson as national development manager; Philpot is a journalist and a volunteer helping long-term prisoners. 

Wilson and Hanvey give the background.  Quakers picked up the idea, and Circles UK was established in 2007. The way they set about it could be a model for a new initiative of this kind: a development plan, quality assurance, evaluation and research, public awareness and media relations, and financial sustainability (p. 29). A code of practice was drawn up; members which comply can use the logo, which helps with funding and general recognition. 

What are sex offenders like? Philpot outlines some of their characteristics and what he calls the ’causes’ of offending.  I would prefer to call them ‘pressures’ or ‘influences’, because they do not necessarily cause it: as he says, many offenders have themselves been abused, but many children who are abused do not become offenders. He states that there is no cure, but people can learn strategies to manage their behaviour. 

In Britain there are sex offender treatment programmes (SOTP) in prison, but only for 950 of the 5600 such prisoners. You can’t get a place if your sentence isn’t long enough for the course: a comment which raises the danger of sentences being lengthened for ‘therapeutic’ reasons. But if you ask why the treatment could not be community-based, the probation service likewise has only 1800 places – about a third of the number required. He quotes research showing that punitive regimes are counterproductive. 

Wilson describes issues around treatment: the English legislation, providing for extended supervision, and the narrow borderline between treatment and punishment. He gives some examples of stigmatizing in the USA that seem sadistic (my word, not his), and points out how counterproductive it is because there is low compliance with registration, so that the men disappear and treatment or support is not possible. Community-based SOTP with offence analysis, victim empathy, life skills, relapse prevention and new life plans can be effective, and also multi-agency co-operation, especially between police and probation. The Good Lives Model recognises good goals such as friendship, inner peace and so on, and shows people how to attain them in appropriate ways. 

After such programmes, the offender needs support, which is where the circles come in. Wilson gives the theoretical framework: support, monitor, maintain, with emphasis on trust. A key factor in re-offending is isolation. Circles are no a panacea, but provide an added layer of support. The use of volunteers is important; but they are trained to act professionally, with a code of practice which also could serve as a model for other voluntary organizations (pp. 65-6). Unlike much current practice it is based not on risk but on ‘all that is good about the human spirit’ (p. 70);  however, it is made clear to the ‘core member of the group’, as the ex-offender is known, that any inappropriate behaviour can lead to recall. This has not often been necessary, but it has been done. 

A large section of the book allows some of the men and the volunteers to tell their stories, followed by a chapter on evaluation and evidence by Hanvey.  Offenders have the same human needs as others, and can learn to meet them without harm to others. Circles are not ‘treatment’ but community support.  Ethical reasons are given why random controlled trials would not be appropriate. As regards re-offending, good results are reported, but records, minutes and reviews were examined to assess the structure and professionalism of the Circles.

So far, so positive; but a major challenge is posed by the media. Philpot describes how, perversely, the very fact that ‘stranger danger’ is rare brings it to the front pages. The public is not reminded that of some 110,000 sex offenders, perhaps 50 could be described as predatory paedophiles. Social workers are blamed for taking at-risk children from home – or for not doing so. 

He recalls the shameless ‘naming and shaming’ by the (now defunct) Murdoch-owned News of the World, with its headline ‘Does a monster live near you?’. The campaign was called off after four men were wrongly identified. Politicians are ‘at best manipulated by the media and, at worst, are colluding with this hysteria-inducing coverage’ (p. 175-6). Philpot ends the book by saying that the more these offenders are demonized, the less we will be able to understand that they can be helped to manage their behaviour, and by so doing save children from the terrible consequences of their actions.

Many other offenders could be helped by a circle of support, but sex offenders more than most, so it is worth concentrating scarce resources on them (mainly human resources of people of goodwill, because the programme is not expensive). 

One direction for future development could be to learn from the ‘core members’ about their modus operandi, and where relevant the difficulties they had in reporting their own abuse, to help devise preventive strategies. Were any of them wanting to seek help but deterred because if they asked for it they would be reported? Should victims be offered restorative dialogue in suitable cases, and if so what safeguards would be needed? 

The book has little to say about the offence of downloading pornographic images – not victimless, although the victims are remote. But meanwhile this book is a readable account of a humane and successful experiment, and it will be useful to those who want to build on it.


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