The reintegration of sex offenders usually causes a lot of commotion; they are unwelcome in every community. Moreover, the recidivism rate of sex offenders is considerably higher than other types of offenders. Circles of Support & Accountability, a Canadian concept, is an effective strategy to reduce the risk of reoffending. In November 2009, a grant by the EU funding programme Daphne III was awarded to Avans University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands in order to spread the use of Circles in the Netherlands and to start in Belgium as well. Bas Vogelvang, lector of Probation Services & Public Safety Policy at Avans University: “One of the project aims is to gather knowledge about the implementation of this method in specific situations, so that Circles can be applied in other European countries too.”
When Chris Wilson, national development manager of Circles UK, was speaking at the 2008 CEP Conference ‘Resettling Adult Offenders’ in Glasgow about the concept, it seemed to Bas Vogelvang to be an effective and practical method for the complex problem of resocialising sex offenders. Back in Holland, he contacted the Dutch Probation Service, in order to set up a project to translate and test the Circles concept in the Netherlands. Together they managed to raise the interest the Dutch Ministry of Justice, which financially supported this project in 2008. “I thought that the Circles method might be suitable for all European countries. After all many countries are dealing with the problem of reintegrating sex offenders in neighbourhoods which are alarmed by the news coverage of the local media”, says Bas Vogelvang. “We were motivated to further implement the Dutch Circles project and promote the concept in Europe. A successful grant application at the EU funding programme for the prevention of violence against groups at risk, Daphne III, gave us the opportunity to do so.”
Based on the results of a study into implementation of the Circles concept in the Netherlands, Bas Vogelvang expects to obtain similar results in the Netherlands as were realized in the UK by Chris Wilson. The results from Wilson´s study that showed that the recidivism rate of Circles participants was 70% less than expected due to the level of risk they presented. “Part of the reason that Circles is so successful is the unique combination of strategies”, explains Bas Vogelvang. “As such it is a method that aims to reduce the social isolation and emotional loneliness of the sex offender, while emphasizing the importance of both public protection and of the accountability of the offender. This combination is a perfect and realistic response to the public reactions to the problem of reintegrating sex offenders.”
Circles is based on the idea that the sex offender is surrounded by two “circles” or groups. These circles prevent the offender from reoffending and help the further reintegration of the offender in the society. A complete circle consists of an inner and outer circle. The inner circle consists of the sex offender (the “core member”) and four to six volunteers. The outer circle consists of professionals, among which a probation officer. Central in the interaction between the core member and the other circle members are the principles of ‘supporting, monitoring and maintaining’. The sex-offender is supported by regular contact with the volunteers and monitored by the volunteers and professionals. Ultimately, the offender, with support of the group, maintains his accountability and motivation for additional professional treatment.
“Prerequisites to set up a Circle of support is that the offender participates voluntarily, and that there is high need for support”, informs Bas Vogelvang. “Moreover, Circles can only take place in a judicial framework. Surrounded by a multidisciplinary network, the offender commits to being truthful about the life he leads and makes sure to inform volunteers about what signals from him would indicate that he is relapsing. The volunteers in the inner circle have been selected and trained and are committed to supporting the core member in the community and holding him to account. The sex offenders are monitored through regular probation supervision, frequent house visits and social meetings. When a core member does not show his participation, or shows signals of recidivism, he can eventually be sent back to prison by the judge who is connected to the professional outer circle. To make the ‘system work’, an appointed and trained circle coordinator of the Dutch Probation Service works closely with both the volunteers and the outer circle, thereby keeping police, probation, prison and other professionals informed about the status of the sex offender.”
In the DAPHNE III financed project, the Dutch Probation Service will start in December 2009 with a pilot in the region of Den Bosch, with two sex-offenders. In a second phase the concept will be rolled out in other regions in the Netherlands. At the same time, Belgium will also set up several Circles projects. Based on the experience and results provided by these projects, Bas Vogelvang and Avans researcher Mechtild Höing will write a handbook on how to develop Circles projects in other EU countries. “The handbook will describe the underlying concepts by using the experience and research generated in our project, and others”, says Bas Vogelvang. “After all, by creating a model for European use, and with the support of Daphne III, similar Circles projects can be implemented all across Europe.”
CEP is a partner in the Circles project and supports the Circles initiative. For more information, please email to firstname.lastname@example.org