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Canada's circles of support and accountability: a community justice initiative for high-risk sex offenders.

Picture the following scenario: The local newspaper has a front-page story about Tom, a repeat child molester who has just been released from prison after serving his entire sentence because he had been denied parole. Tom's crimes and the plight of his victims are graphically described. A spokesperson from a community group is quoted as saying, "We don't want him in our community." Tom has no family or friends in the community, no job and only a temporary place to stay. He is lonely, frightened and ashamed of who he is and what he has done. He does not want to re-offend but is afraid he will. Although the law requires Tom to register as a sex offender and he may come under surveillance or be subject to community notification as a consequence, there are few community resources to help him deal with the many psychosocial problems that put him at risk to re-offend.


As one of society's most reviled social pariahs. Tom has little to look forward to but a lifetime of hiding in the shadows or returning to prison. Yet with all the concern for community protection that is evident in this scenario, it is unclear whether the community is any safer as a result of such an exclusionary approach. But what is the alternative? In recent years, an approach has emerged in Canada that does offer an alternative. This approach, known as Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), starts with the premise that community protection can be enhanced by taking a restorative approach that combines the concerns of public safety and offender reintegration.

How COSA Came About

COSA is a unique community justice initiative that originated in the Canadian province of Ontario in the mid-1990s to deal with the difficult set of problems posed by "high-risk sex offenders" released from prison at warrant expiry, with no supervision and few resources, into hostile and fearful communities. In Canada, all offenders who do not receive parole are normally released from prison under mandatory parole supervision after serving two-thirds of their sentences. The purpose of such statutory release is to help manage offenders' risk of recidivism by allowing for a monitored entry into the community. Legislation (Bill C-67) passed in 1986, however, resulted in some offenders not only being denied parole but also being denied statutory release (at two-thirds of sentence), requiring them to serve their full sentence on the basis that they were considered to be at high risk of committing an offense causing death or other "serious harm," including any sexual offense against a child. The result of this legislation was a gap in the system that allowed high-risk sex offenders to be released into the community without supervision.

The social problem of sexual victimization, particularly involving child victims, came to the forefront of public consciousness all across North America during the 1980s. Populist responses to sex offending generally centered on concern for community protection. However, the COSA initiative represents a more recent convergence of community protection philosophy and restorative justice.

Although the bulk of sex offenders are family members and acquaintances of victims, by far the greatest amount of public fear has been aroused by serial predatory sex offenders and, in particular, the few who murder or violently assault their victims. The key events in the development of a community protection approach to sex offenders took place in the United States. In the early 1990s, following several high-profile cases of predatory child sexual assault, Washington state passed its Community Protection Act, New Jersey passed Megan's Law and other states followed suit.

These measures included a sex offender registry, community notification of the whereabouts of sex offenders and indefinite civil commitment of people found to be "sexually violent predators." Federal legislation followed, which required all states to establish registries (Jacob Wetterling Law) and community notification systems (Federal Megan's Law) and established a national sex offender registry. In Canada, the 1988 murder of 11-year-old Christopher Stephenson by serial predator and ex-psychiatric patient Joseph Fredericks and a subsequent inquest from late 1992 to early 1993 gave impetus to a movement to establish special community protection measures for sex offenders in Canada. This movement has been slower and less sweeping than in the United States. Christopher's Law, which created a sex offender registry in Ontario, only came into effect in 2001 and legislation creating a national sex offender registry has been passed but not yet implemented. (1)

Although legislation allowing detention to warrant expiry was in existence in 1986, it was not applied to Fredericks when he was released from prison only a few months before slaying Stephenson. Fredericks was on mandatory supervision and his parole supervisors were unaware that he had changed residencies and breached his release conditions prohibiting contact with children. In the period just prior to Stephenson's murder, Fredericks was a volunteer with the John Howard Society, an offender aftercare and advocacy agency. In response to an angry public that felt that the criminal justice and mental health systems had been negligent in the cases of Fredericks and other high-profile offenders. Bill C-36 was passed in 1992. This legislation restricted early parole eligibility and unescorted absence for high-risk sex and violent offenders and required Correctional Services Canada (CSC) to provide police with an information package on any designated high-risk offender about to be released. In 1993, Bill C-126 allowed judges to issue probation orders restricting sex offenders from being in places frequented by children. This bill also extended the use of the peace bond provision (Section 810.1, Criminal Code of Canada) to apply similar restrictions to any person considered at risk of a sexual offense against a child under 14.

The basic message of community protection legislation in the United States and Canada is that many sex offenders (especially extrafamilial offenders against children) are at such a high risk to re-offend that they should either be detained longer in prison or be subjected to special levels of community control such as registration, community notification and restricted access to public places. In community settings (and even in prisons), sex offenders, particularly pedophiles, are the most reviled of all offenders. The release of high-profile offenders from prison frequently results in sensationalist media coverage, public protest, vigilantism and other clear expressions that the offender is not wanted. This exclusionary response makes attempts at rehabilitation and reintegration extremely difficult, resulting in some offenders going underground and an increase in their risk of recidivism.

The exclusive use of these types of community protection approaches to sex offenders does not seem to offer an effective means of protecting the community from further victimization. For example, legislation mandating sex offender registration and community notification is plagued by the problem of noncompliance. Forty-four percent of all of California's released sex offenders have failed to update their contact information with the authorities, while 56 percent of sex offenders in Massachusetts have failed to comply with registry orders. (2) Noncompliance hampers the utility of any such registry system and calls into question the wisdom of using sex offender registries in combination with community notification. By reporting his whereabouts to the sex offender registry in a jurisdiction with community notification, the offender is effectively "outing" himself to the community in which he wishes to reside. The resulting community protest forces offenders to give up any illusions of being able to reside peacefully in the community and often they find that they must relocate to another community where they are not known. This vicious cycle of reporting and notification leads offenders to stop reporting their whereabouts and to go underground, meaning that police are no longer able to maintain contact with the offender. Contrast this situation with the United Kingdom where sex offenders must register but community notification is not required. Compliance with registration requirements in the United Kingdom is approximately 97 percent, (3) making its registry system far more useful for police than is the case in jurisdictions where notification is practiced.

The restorative justice approach to the issues of crime, victimization, community safety and justice is markedly different from approaches that put an emphasis on community protection to the exclusion of other objectives. A key notion of restorative justice is that approaches based primarily on retribution and incapacitation make matters worse by interfering with the rehabilitation of offenders, contributing to public fear, and failing to deal with social, cultural, economic and psychological factors that lead individuals to both initially offend and persist in offending. The restorative justice approach contends that communities can be made safer by allowing for "healing" offenders and victims, promoting accountability, and allowing for the safe, gradual reintegration of offenders.

Two organizations in Canada played key roles in developing a restorative justice initiative for sex offenders that would deal with such concerns. The Mennonite Central Committee actively promoted a variety of restorative justice initiatives in the community, including Victim Offender Reconciliation programs in Southern Ontario. Also, CSC's Community Chaplaincy Program worked within prisons to link offenders about to be released to community supports.

Influenced by the notion of "wraparound care" that had been used to help individuals with severe disabilities function in the community, in 1994, Mennonite pastor Harry Nigh organized a circle of volunteers in the city of Hamilton to help deal with the predicament of Charlie Taylor, a mentally disabled pedophile offender who had been released from prison on his warrant expiry date with no community supervision, no resources and a barrage of negative media coverage. Nigh and his volunteers helped Taylor find a place to stay, welcomed him to attend church services and social functions, and set up a safety net of daily contacts to protect Taylor and minimize his risk to children.

Also in 1994, the Rev. Hugh Kirkegaard (a Baptist minister and CSC community chaplain) and other volunteers responded by creating a circle in Toronto to deal with the situation of Wray Budreo, a pedophile offender with 36 convictions who was being released from prison on warrant expiry in the face of a hostile media and public.

With the success of these two initial circles, the Mennonite Central Committee, together with Community Chaplaincy of CSC, was able to get funding from CSC in 1996 to set up a pilot project, the Community Reintegration Project, to more systematically develop and promote the COSA concept and implement it across Canada. The Community Reintegration Project has developed a loose structure consisting of representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee and CSC chaplaincy who identify candidates in prisons who meet the COSA criteria and local initiative coordinators that recruit and arrange training for volunteers and help establish new circles.

How COSAs Work

According to Community Reintegration Project protocols, a COSA is a group of four to seven trained volunteer members who enter into a covenant with a high-risk sex offender who is known as the core member. COSAs have the dual objectives of preventing further victimization and helping the core member function in the community. This is done by providing support in finding suitable work, housing and recreation, and access to social assistance and community resources; helping the core member follow his relapse prevention plan; providing him with company and listening to his concerns; and being available should there be a crisis. Circle volunteers commit to be a part of a circle for a minimum of one year. Ideally, volunteers do not act in a supervisory or therapeutic role. They are "good Samaritans" who "walk with" the core member as he deals with the myriad factors that place him at risk of sexually offending and attempts to develop a meaningful life and sense of self-worth. The core member may be dealing with substance abuse issues, paraphilias, poor social skills, a history of sexual abuse and a host of other social and psychological problems.

Volunteers should be aware of the core member's particular situation and be willing to assist him in negotiating the process of building a new life, free of offense, in the community. The core member must agree to allow at least one volunteer member complete access to his criminal justice and clinical files to ensure that the circle is aware of his criminal and clinical history and the risks he poses.

A covenant is drawn up and signed by the core member and volunteers, specifying the obligations that each has to the other and the principles to which each must adhere. Confidentiality of information is central. Circles, at least initially, meet weekly to set up a schedule for the forthcoming week and discuss the core member's activities during the previous week. Individual volunteers meet with the core member on a daily basis to assist him in various ways or just talk about how he is doing. Circle participants listen to the core member's concerns, help him to develop constructive solutions, hold him accountable for lapses in judgment and support him in maintaining an appropriate routine, help him deal with feelings of discouragement and celebrate successes.

As the core member progresses, meetings may take place less often. However, if the core member continues to have major needs, the circle may continue to meet indefinitely. The two initial circles (for Charlie Taylor and Wray Budreo) still meet to this day. There are currently more than 100 circles across Canada, (4) and the United Kingdom, Ireland and Wisconsin (5) have created pilot projects based on the Canadian model.

Based on research (6) on COSAs in a large Ontario city, the following criteria for successful circles were deduced:

* COSAs must have a defined singularity of purpose and group cohesion accomplished through careful screening of volunteers, thorough training in COSA philosophy and an emphasis on making restorative justice concerns just as central to circles as are community protection concerns;

* While COSA volunteers do not work for or report to criminal justice or mental health professionals, open communication with them must be maintained without dissolving the distinction between volunteers and professional helpers; and

* While a COSA must always take an inclusive approach to the core member, volunteer members must also always be cognizant of his shortcomings, including any tendency to be evasive or manipulative. Careful attention to clinical files and mutual sharing of information is important in alerting volunteers to potential problems.

Robin Wilson and Michelle Prinzo (7) used actuarial risk-assessment instruments to assess the risk of re-offending of the core members in 30 COSAs in Ontario. Wilson and Prinzo concluded that there was a statistical probability that at least seven out of the 30 individuals might have been expected to re-offend based on their risk profiles. Only three of the 30, however, were charged with a sex offense after participating in a circle. These offenses consisted of an indecent phone call, a sexual offense against a female adult, and a sex offense against a child. One of these charges was subsequently dropped. While this modest statistical study indicates the potential of circles to reduce recidivism, there is considerable evidence of an anecdotal nature that circles have substantially improved the lives of core members and helped them to integrate into their respective communities.

Maintaining a Delicate Balance

The COSA initiative combines the goal of community protection with risk management and restorative justice concerns for offender reintegration. The explicit mandate of COSA is to deal with high-risk sex offenders, individuals for whom a deeply-seated disorder is often a central factor in the risk they pose to harm others and to ruin their own lives. In response to such unfortunate experiences as that of the Toronto John Howard Society with Joseph Fredericks, it is COSA policy to require full access to the core member's clinical and criminal justice files as a condition of his participation in a circle. COSA also takes note of any legal and other restrictions placed on core members (peace bond, sex offender registration, requirements to participate in sex offender treatment and treatment for other issues such as substance abuse and anger management) and expects him to respect these restrictions.

The screening of COSA volunteers and the training required of them are acknowledgements of the risk involved in working with core members and serve as a proactive measure to safeguard volunteers and the community alike. The COSA model is one that requires a careful balancing of reintegration and risk management concerns. Too much emphasis on support and not enough on accountability make for a circle that is insufficiently vigilant to detect lapses of judgment that could eventually result in a relapse. Conversely, too much stress on accountability and not enough on support could lead to a buildup of pressure and defeatist attitudes that could also result in relapse. Maintaining a delicate balance between support and accountability makes COSA a unique alternative to punitive and incapacitating approaches.


(1) Petrunik, M. 2003. The hare and the tortoise: Dangerousness and sex offender policy in the United States and Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 45(10): 43-72.

(2) Matravers, A. 2003. Setting some boundaries: Rethinking responses to sex offenders. In Sex offenders in the community: Managing and reducing the risk, ed. A. Matravers, 25. Cullompton, England: Willar.

(3) Matravers, A. 2003.

(4) Davidson, J. 2001. Sex offenders salvaged by circles: Prevents new crimes, Anglican Journal. Available at

(5) Wheat Ridge Ministries. 2002. Circles of support. Available at

(6) Hannen-Kish, S. 2003. Circles of support and accountability: An exploratory and theoretical analysis of a restorative justice initiative for high-risk, warrant expiry sex offenders. Unpublished master's thesis. Ottawa: University of Ottawa.

(7) Wilson, R. and M. Prinzo. 2001. Circles of support: A restorative justice initiative. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 7(2): 145-155.

Stacey Hannem is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa. Michael Petrunik, Ph.D., is an associate professor with the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Hannem, Stacey; Petrunik, Michael
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Previous Article:Introduction to Crime Analysis: Basic Resources for Criminal Justice Practice.
Next Article:Developing restorative justice in China.

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