I can't help noticing that since gaining release, Ben Gunn is stirring up quite a lively debate about imprisonment over on his blogsite, whilst trying to deal with the inevitable trolls at the same time. This was always going to be a tricky exercise for any of us trying to put a slightly more nuanced angle on the age-old argument 'does prison work?' I know, because I've tackled the issue once or twice myself, as here in December 2010 and entitled 'So, Does Prison Work?
Actually in his recent piece Ben has brought up a specific topic I've been meaning to cover more thoroughly since briefly mentioning it here on 'Protecting the Public'. It's an organisation called Circles of Support and Accountability. As he says, the concept has it's roots in Canada as a faith-led community response to sex offenders who were serving long prison terms, but amazingly being released back into the community without support or supervision.
Sex offenders in particular are often highly isolated individuals lacking both social skills and legitimate community contacts. The idea is that each offender is offered the chance to have a small group of carefully selected volunteers, usually about six, and they form a 'circle' around that person through their time in prison and on into release back into the community.
As the name indicates, they not only offer support but accountability as well. In other words it's an additional level of supervision that is encouraged to continue long after any statutory involvement by probation or police ends. Unfortunately, as their website makes clear, the continuing Jimmy Saville revelations is leading to some public misunderstanding as to the charity's focus on preventing further offending, as well as support for former perpetrators.
It will be obvious that Circles is not a 'magic bullet' solution as it can only ever be considered an option where an offender fully admits culpability and is willing to entertain changes in their attitude and behaviour towards offending. I don't want to unduly depress readers, but in my experience this sadly renders Circles inappropriate in many cases as levels of denial amongst sex offenders as a group is significant. Equally in my view it cannot replace imprisonment as a punishment, but can play a major part in effective rehabilitation where an offender accepts their offending and is willing to cooperate.
Having said that, Circles is proving beyond doubt that this restorative justice concept is a good one for the right offender and reconviction rates are remarkably low for those who have been part of the pilot projects so far. Without doubt it is an idea that will develop, possibly into other areas of offending and it is being enthusiastically supported by all relevant criminal justice agencies.
This shouldn't really surprise us as the underlying ethos is completely in accord with the humanitarian and religious principles that gave rise to the probation service in the first place. Here in the UK it's particularly noteworthy that Circles enjoys the very active support of the Society of Friends - or Quakers to you and me.