WHAT FOLLOWS PUNISHMENT?
Data shows that community-support circles decrease rates of sex-offender recidivism. One program may lead the way when it comes to reintegrating offenders into society.
Aviva StahlSEP—26—2019 01:01PM EST
When people convicted of sex offenses in the United States finish their criminal sentences, they generally face a slew of regulations and restrictions — from offender registries to residency restrictions to the possibility of lifelong civil commitment — that leave them isolated, stigmatized, and surveilled. But while Richard knew that living in the free world as a convicted sex offender wouldn’t be easy, nothing prepared him for the reality.
The first time he got released, in 2007, was after he’d served four years in Minnesota prisons for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old when he was 33. Residency restrictions meant he couldn’t live close to a school or daycare. Nobody would give him a job. “If I wasn’t with family, I don’t know where I would have been living,” he told me over the phone recently. He said an old friend once chased him down, put a gun to his face and called him a ‘baby raper.’ “Surviving was next to impossible,” he said.
Within six months, Richard was rearrested for violating his parole when his urine tested positive for cocaine. He ended up spending 10 more months on the inside, including attending drug treatment. One day, while Richard was locked up at Lino Lakes, a prison just north of Minneapolis, staff members employed by the restorative justice department of the Minnesota Department of Corrections came by to explain a program called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). The program, which prison administrators first brought to the state in 2008, pairs sex offenders at high risk of reoffending with groups of trained community volunteers, who meet with the indiviudal and ease their transition to life on the outside. (CoSA is not to be confused with COSA, the 12-step program for those affected by another’s compulsive sexual behavior.)
Richard realized the initiative would offer him just the kind of support that might keep him out of prison for good — a network of people who weren’t supposed to judge him, but instead help him navigate his new life without reoffending. The intensive time commitment required of Minnesota CoSA (MnCOSA) volunteers limits the number of people who can benefit from the program; in the decade or so that the program has been running, fewer than 60 individuals have been able to participate, and even today only about one in five prisoners who want to take part in the program are able to, according to staff.
Regardless, once he was back on the inside, Richard signed up for the lottery to participate in MnCOSA and hoped for the best. A few weeks later, he heard he’d been picked. “I was excited,” he said. “‘Cause like I did get out once, and it didn’t work, so I needed something to try to help me stay out.”
In the past few years we’ve witnessed the election of progressive prosecutors in large American cities like Philadelphia and Boston; we’ve watched “tough on crime” Democrats like Joe Biden come under fierce criticism from party supporters; there has been in-depth coverage of prison abolitionism in mainstream outlets like The New York Times; and abolitionist campaigners across the country are making the case that jail expansion is never justified — and in places, they’re winning.
But these tectonic shifts in how we think about prison and punishment have been uneven, as exemplified by the #MeToo movement. By and large, the relative success of the movement has been measured not on the rates of violence reported by women, trans, and non-binary people but by public response to offender punishment and the criminal-justice system’s capacity to put men like Richard behind bars.
COSA IS GROUNDED IN TWO ETHOS: FIRST, NO MORE VICTIMS, AND SECOND, NO ONE IS DISPOSABLE.
Consider the now-infamous case of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer convicted of rape in 2016, and Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced him to a mere six months in prison to national outrage. In 2018, after an aggressive campaign, voters in Santa Clara County, California voted to recall Persky; he became the first judge to be recalled in the state in 80 years. This seemed like an instance of public triumph over a flawed system that favors and excuses the elite, but when the journalist Julia Ioffe reported on the recall effort for The Highline, legal experts told her the recall could actually hinder progressive criminal justice reform. It sent the message that if judges wanted to keep their jobs, they shouldn’t issue rulings too contrary to public opinion — if Persky could be recalled, so could any California judge who opted out of the tough-on-crime mentality in giving defendants unpopularly short sentences.
Several months earlier, many #MeToo activists had celebrated Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s words from the bench in sentencing Larry Nassar, the former national team doctor of USA Gymnastics, to 40 to 175 years behind bars. When she addressed Nassar, the Michigan justice didn’t mince words: “I just signed your death warrant.”
There’s no question that Nassar and others like him need to be held accountable for their abhorrent behavior and prevented from harming anyone else. But for abolitionist writers and activists Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba, the public’s embrace of Aquilina was not something to be proud of, or an indication that the criminal justice system is finally treating sexual violence with the gravity it deserves. Rather, the lionization of Aquilina was evidence that many #MeToo supporters, even those who identify as progressives, could be swept up in the same “lock em’ up!” fervor that’s driven America’s incarceration rate to the highest in the world.
In a 2018 blog post, Hayes and Kaba wrote: “When we see defendants as symbols of what we most fear, and that which we most greatly despise, we are confronted with a true test of our belief that no justice can be done under this system.”
If even in some of its most popular manifestations the #MeToo movement aims to subject sex offenders to “civil death” (the term used by Hayes and Kaba to characterize Nassar’s sentence), CoSA is designed to do just the opposite. The program is grounded in two ethos: first, no more victims, and second, no one is disposable.
Each participant meets regularly with a team of volunteers who provide them with emotional support, assist in applying for jobs, and challenge the behaviors and attitudes that contributed to their crime. Data shows that the MnCOSA program has been effective, and not just in helping recently released offenders feel less isolated. According to a 2018 peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, MnCOSA “lowered the risk of rearrest for a new sex arrest by 88 percent.” As a result, the program is estimated to have saved $2 million in costs to the state.
At a time of national focus on sexual violence, CoSA calls into question whether taking sexual violence more seriously means imposing harsher punishments on offenders. For Richard and many other past and current participants, CoSA serves as an important reminder that there’s a better way to combine the goals of #MeToo and criminal justice reform. By being “radically inclusive,” in the words of one scholar who studied the model, CoSA frames ending sexual violence a community-led process and responsibility.
Dr. Robin Wilson may understand the benefits and aims of CoSA better than anyone because he was there for the program’s first iteration. In the spring of 1994, Wilson was working as the head of outpatient sex offender services for the Correctional Service of Canada’s greater Toronto region. A man named Charlie Taylor, who had committed multiple sex offenses against children, was about to be released from prison. Since he had reached the end of his criminal sentence, Taylor would not have access to any outpatient programming run by the correctional service — like probation or parole — but staff worried that without support, he might end up reoffending.
Desperate to find a solution, Wilson and his team reached out to various prison chaplains to see if anyone could help. They were soon connected with Reverend Harry Nigh, who led a small Mennonite church in Hamilton, Ontario and had known Charlie during his time on the inside. “When [Charlie] gets released, send him here and we’ll figure it out,” Nigh told Wilson. Soon, Nigh got to work setting up the first “circle.” Against everyone’s expectations, Taylor did not commit another crime after he was released into the community, so when another high-risk individual was about to be released, he was set up with a circle, too.
“We started to recognize that this was really helping to assist these particular people who everyone thought would have reoffended within weeks of being released,” Wilson, who no longer works for the Correctional Services, told me over the phone. “They were now out months, approaching years, and weren’t getting in trouble.”
“IT’S A PRETTY MUCH UNIVERSAL FINDING THAT PEOPLE WHO HAVE SUPPORT, PEOPLE WHO HAVE OTHERS THERE TO ASSIST THEM IN DEALING WITH THEIR PROBLEMS, TEND TO DO BETTER.”
Eventually, Wilson convinced the Solicitor General of Canada to give him a small amount of money to start a CoSA pilot program. “From the beginning, the research has always been pretty encouraging,” said Wilson. Studies, including the one from Minnesota, consistency show that people who participate in CoSAs are less likely to engage in recidivist behavior, including violent and sexual misconduct. Since 1994, the CoSA approach has spread across Canada and to the U.K., Australia, Europe and the U.S. Today, there are COSA programs in several states, including Vermont, North Carolina, and Minnesota.
Back in prison, Richard (referred to as the “core member” as to avoid derogatory labels) was set up with a group of five volunteers (called the “circle members”), who started visiting him every Monday in the months preceding his release. He told them about what he had done — intentionally intoxicating one of his son’s friends, a 15-year-old girl, and then assaulting her. He was honest about his problems with drinking and drugs and they spoke about what it meant to own up to his crime. “We started getting comfortable with each other,” he said. “I was starting to feel excited about my Mondays.”
Once he was out, the team continued to meet every Saturday morning at a nearby church. In the circle, Richard could talk about his offense and the triggers, including substance use, that might lead him down the path to reoffending. If he felt the urge to use drugs, he could call one of the volunteers, and they would talk him through it or meet him for a coffee. They offered him practical support, like giving him a rides and helping him get a part-time job, an aspiration that is often all but impossible for people who have sex offenses on their record.
They showed him that they cared — like the time they threw him a surprise birthday party — but they also held him accountable. One time, Richard said, his circle members found out that he’d skipped work, and they confronted him to ask him where he’d been and what he’d been doing. Another time, when his girlfriend suspected he’d started using, the team came over and asked him to tell them the truth. (He eventually convinced them he was still sober, Richard told me).
“Oh, yes,” said Richard when I asked him all this support helped prevent him from reoffending. “Your crime is a serious crime, but you owned up to it, you took responsibility for it,” his volunteers would say. “They always told me, that’s the biggest thing — no more victims.” When I asked him about his crime, Richard detailed what happened openly and without minimizing or justifying his behavior. He expressed frustration and disappointment in the person he used to be and gratitude that he was given the opportunity to change.
For Wilson, the fact that CoSA has been shown to be effective is not surprising. “It’s a pretty much universal finding that people who have support, people who have others there to assist them in dealing with their problems, tend to do better,” he told me. “When you engage in behavior that makes you perhaps among the most hated social pariahs on the planet… It’s not hard to see how that lack of social connectedness could be a risk factor.”
Despite data demonstrating their efficacy, when CoSA programs have been founded in new places, the initiative is often met with vocal public opposition. In 2018 Kieran McCartan,a professor of criminology at the University of the West of England, Bristol, used social media posts from southern Australia to analyze the public’s response to CoSA. In an article published in the journal Deviant Behavior in 2018, he and a co-researcher theorized that people who support CoSA do so “on instrumental grounds,” because they recognize that providing support to ex-offenders is crucial to the re-integration of those people.
Meanwhile, those who oppose CoSA tend to do so “out of symbolic concerns,” meaning they hold steadfast to the notion that people who commit sex offenses are irredeemable. These individuals tend to push for punitive policies, including offender registries, residency restrictions, and exhaustive conditions of supervision — policies that amount to “the opposite of radical inclusion,” in the words of Dr. Kathy Fox, another academic who has studied CoSAs.
The “symbolic concerns” around sex offenders mean that non-punitive programs like CoSA often struggle to survive. In Canada, funding for the project is subject to ever-shifting political winds: a “tough on crime” government refused to renew grants in 2015, only to reverse that decision two years later. Many CoSA initiatives in the U.S., including in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, have either failed to get off the ground or folded after running for a few years.
The public’s response to the program poses other problems too, including recruiting volunteers. Sarah King has been working to coordinate volunteers for the MnCOSA program for about seven years. She told me that volunteer recruitment is the primary barrier to ensuring they can provide a circle to every person leaving prison who wants one. Interestingly, according to King, for many of the volunteers, a history of sexual victimization – either in their own experience or someone else in their family — was “instinctively tied to their desire to participate in the program.”
THE “SYMBOLIC CONCERNS” AROUND SEX OFFENDERS MEAN THAT NON-PUNITIVE PROGRAMS OFTEN STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE.
Andi Morris first heard about MnCOSA when she was working for the state’s Department of Corrections processing paperwork. One day, while surfing the DOC’s website, she came across an advertisement for MnCOSA that stated the program was seeking volunteers. Morris, who is in her 30s, was drawn to the program and reached out to submit her name; she has now been involved in MnCOSA for nearly a decade. She told me that that volunteering changed her in ways she had never anticipated, including enabling her to be a better listener.
Asked how or if the core member’s victim factored into the circle, Morris said that wasn’t the primary focus of the process. Another MnCOSA staff member on the phone, Richard Nelson, recalled a time when a victim had requested an apology letter. The circle took that as an opportunity for growth and reflection, and assisted the core member in writing one. “It turned out to be a very restorative process,” he said.
Morris also said the experience allowed her to see the kind of struggles that felons and people convicted of sex offenses go through when they’re released. “It’s just been eye-opening to me,” she said.
Expectedly, not all victims are in favor of programs like CoSA. Jude Foster works as the Statewide Medical Forensic Policy Coordinator for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “I’ve heard victim/survivors tell me, ‘I want my perpetrator to be civilly committed. I want him locked away for the rest of his life,’” she said.
But for many survivors, said Foster, having the person who assaulted them locked up would be the worst possible outcome; the vast majority of people are sexually assaulted by someone they know, and may be dependent on that person for financial support, immigration status, or fear that pressing charges could put other relationships at risk. In some cases, survivors end up feeling as victimized by the criminal justice system as the crime.
Ending sexual violence, Foster said, will require “putting responsibility on the community” — impressing on people that we share a communal responsibility to keep each other safe. Whether it’s making sure a neighbor gets home if they’ve had too much to drink, or pulling a friend aside if we see them touching someone without asking permission, ending our culture of sexual violence requires the active participation of everyone, for everyone.
Grier Weeks is a senior executive with the National Association to Protect Children, an advocacy group that pushes for tough-on-crime approaches like harsher sentences and additional oversight in dealing with sex offenders. He takes issue with how critiques of CoSA have been framed, including the notion that opponents of the program necessarily misunderstand how sexual violence works or who commits it.
Anyone who works in the field understands “that the typical predator is somebody who is a family member and doesn’t look scary and maybe is prominent in the community,” Weeks told me when we spoke on the phone. “That’s all the more reason why people should understand that if you’ve got some kind of a circle of support around someone who is sexually dangerous to children, that it’s going to look and feel to them like they’re really getting somewhere.”
ACCORDING TO A 2018 PAPER, MNCOSA “LOWERED THE RISK OF REARREST FOR A NEW SEX ARREST BY 88 PERCENT.”
Perhaps, Weeks said, MnCoSA’s impressive recidivism rates aren’t a reflection of the efficacy of the program, but the fact that the people in it are simply better at not getting caught. People who commit sexual offenses “are among the most manipulative people in our society,” he said. “One very good way to cover your tracks is to surround yourself with a bunch of fans that are in your corner.” And what would it mean, he wondered, for the child who had come forward about the abuse they’d experienced and survived the trial — only to see their perpetrator back into the community?
Researchers who have studied CoSA are not so cynical, either about people who commit sexual offenses or the possibility of change. For McCartan, the criminology professor who studied public perceptions of the program, the point of CoSA is that it transforms the core member as much as everyone else. “What COSA does is it invites members of the community to be in a circle, to work with people coming out of prison and [to help] them to reintegrate into the community,” he told me. “[It’s] community driven, and that means that it helps communities understand the reality of sexual abuse and sexual violence,” including who commits it, and what it takes for them to change.
Richard worked with his CoSA team for about five years following his release, and the circle members are still in his life. He told me they helped him in innumerable ways, most of all in ensuring he didn’t end up back in prison. Richard now lives in Minnesota with his wife, whom he married in 2012, and works as a truck driver.
“I’m not a monster,” he said. “I deserve a chance.”SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTERSUBSCRIBEAviva Stahl is an award-winning investigative journalist who primarily writes about prisons and national security issues. She’s been published in The Nation, The Intercept, Harper’s, CJR and Gothamist.