In October 2016, CEP launched the CEP awards, a celebration of outstanding contributions to probation. The awards scheme reflects CEP’s vision: to contribute to safer communities by rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders and providing the best possible interventions to reduce re-offending and the impact of crime. Third of 4 categories is Social Inclusion. Winner is Reclassering Nederland (Dutch Probation Services) for the Circles of Support and Accountability, an outstanding contribution to the integration of probation clients in the community.

Circles Of Support & Accountability (COSA, or Circles) is a unique and innovative community justice initiative for postrelease monitoring of medium- and high-risk sex offenders in and by the community. Circles aim to achieve ‘no more victims’. Founded on the principles of restorative justice in Canada in 1994, the method entails that a sex offender (the core member) after release is regularly visited by three to five volunteers (the inner circle), preferably from the local community. The inner circle assists the core member resettling in the community by stimulating pro-social behaviour and by providing support, practical help and to hold him accountable.

Circles volunteers are trained citizens to recognize behaviour indicating increased risk with the core member. In that case they will alert the so called circle coordinator. The inner circle focuses on the daily life of the core member and his participation in our society. The equal position of all circle members (the core member included) gives members the opportunity to start equal relations. The core member is expected to, initially against the people who are a supportive factor for him, to be honest in order to gain insight for the volunteers (including feelings, thoughts and behaviors). Volunteers are trained in being supportive when it comes to their role as a model. Along with the core member, the focus is on daily situations to prevent new victims and having no secrets.

The circle coordinator has a specific position within the entire process. The circle coordinator coordinates the entire process of the inner circle and outer circle in terms of inclusion, behavior change and risk reduction. In addition, the circle coordinator is responsible for recruiting, training, support and supervise volunteers. Meanwhile the circles coordinator has an overall focus for the key principles and quality standards within the work of circles.

The outer circle consists of a circle of professionals. The composition depends on the situation and needs of the core member. For example members of the outer circle can be the probation officer, the therapist, a police officer, etc..

In 2002, COSA was first introduced in Europe, in the United Kingdom, where similar good results were obtained. COSA was transferred to the Netherlands in 2008. In a project funded by the European Commission (called Circles), the elements for a successful transfer of COSA from one national context to another Europe: Together for Safety were identified. This formed the basis for a new project Circles4EU.

COSA Netherlands started by the end of 2009. By June 2016 there have been over 100 circles in total and about 65 active circles a year. Sjef van Gennip, Director of Reclassering Nederland: “Our mission is to work for a safer society. COSA is an example of a method that contributes to this. Because our organization believes in the what works-theory, it is important to get the effects clear. Therefore, there are multiple and long-term studies on the effects of COSA. The results of these studies are encouraging and show that we have the efforts of the volunteers manage to prevent new victims. We are proud of the results and all involved people. It’s a good example of how volunteers contribute to a safer society with help from professionals.

European dissemination and research

Under the project name Circles4EU during 2013-2014, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium supported the implementation of circles in Europe with pilots in Bulgaria, Latvia and Catalonia, while implementation in France, Hungary and Ireland is being prepared within the framework of the project. In 2015 best practices were shared. And a new European handbook was provided.

Meanwhile CirclesNL discloses information needed for research. This research shows that COSA effectively leads to a lower risk of new criminal behaviour.

Circles in practice

Circles volunteer Martin Lambermon: “I remember one core member who disclosed that he – when he introduces himself to other people in society – would rather prefer to say: ‘Nice to meet you, my name is Charles, I am a pedophile’. But he knows that this will not be accepted and as such he learned to live with his big secret.

Meanwhile he leads a socially isolated life in fear. He is anxious that the community discovers his sexual preference. Because of his anxiety and need to talk about his preference (that prevents him from making victims) Charles decided to take part in the COSA project. With mottos like ‘no more victims’, ‘no one is disposable’, and ‘no more secrets’ Charles is committed with his volunteers.

Our volunteers started to support Charles with his need to set up his life, based on their own ideas and values. Particularly, they thought that Charles had to undertake outdoor activities. But in fact Charles wanted no such things. He is satisfied with the presence of the volunteers and the fact that he can disclose with other people. Such core members call for volunteers who can be satisfied with ‘just being there’.”

Then there is the story of Ben, a 42-year-old single man, who was convicted for making and distributing child pornography. His family neglected him and he lived isolated.

Lambermon: “Pending his detention he started his circle with four volunteers. During his detention, a niece suddenly appeared. She offered to take care of the core members business during his prison time. This contact created opportunities, and opened the door to a conversation between the family and the circle coordinator. Other family members were informed indirectly about recent (and positive) developments of the core members life and his support from volunteers in society. Meantime the family got more involved in the positively changed life of the core member. This resulted in a meeting of family members and circle volunteers. A few months later the core member planned a holiday with his family ‘just as before’.

The family members disposed warm feelings for the circle volunteers. They indicated that the core member would have never managed to bring a gift to the family if it were not for the volunteers to guide the core member and support him with ‘such little things in life’.”

The CEP award for the category of Social Inclusion was handed at the CEP Conference on Alternatives to detention in Bucharest by  Mr. Mihai Dima, General Director of the Romanian National Probation Directorate and Mr. Willem van der Brugge, Secretary General of CEP member of the CEP Awards Jury.  The award is received by  Mr. Martin Lambermon, COSA volunteer (left) and Mr. Sjef van Gennip, General Director of Reclassering Nederland (right).


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