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Friday, 23 December 2011

Circles of Support and Accountability

Hanvey, S., Philpot, T. and Wilson, C. (2011) A Community Based Approach to the Reduction of Sexual Reoffending: Circles of Support and Accountability, London, Jessica Kingsley

This book introduces readers to a new and innovative approach to the management of sexual offenders in the community - Circles of Support and Accountability. It will appeal chiefly to those who have a professional interest in the supervision of sexual offenders; but it also provides a fascinating read for anyone interested in safeguarding children and adults at risk of sexual aggression.

The first Circle was set up in Canada in 1994 to manage a sexual offender released from prison without statutory supervision. In response to community concerns a group of volunteers gathered round the offender to support his rehabilitation, monitor his behaviour and help him to maintain an offence free lifestyle. The experiment was successful and the model was imported into the UK where it has been tested and developed.

The book begins with a history of the Circles approach, rooted in ideas of restorative justice. This is followed by chapters on sexual offending and the criminal justice framework built to manage sexual offenders in the UK. It’s clear that Circles can complement the resettlement work done by statutory agencies, offering emotional support and practical help at a time when offenders are at increased risk of reoffending. The role of the circle’s volunteers is not simply to support the offender; trained and risk aware, they monitor the offender for signs of increasing risk, report any concerns to statutory services and hold accountable the offender’s promise of “No more victims”.

At the heart of the book are two fascinating chapters containing interviews with sexual offenders and volunteers. Both groups describe their life experiences and the benefits that each derives from being part of a circle. The striking difference between the two groups is the amount of trauma experienced in early life by the offenders. The book goes on to evaluate the effectiveness of Circles, with preliminary results suggesting a very positive effect on reoffending rates.

The final chapter criticises the press for demonising sex offenders and strengthening the public’s mistaken perception that sex offenders are ‘monsters’ and ‘strangers’ that our children must simply avoid to stay safe. In fact most sexual offences are committed by trusted family members, friends and neighbours. The book’s positive message is that whilst sexual offending takes place within the community and causes much harm, the community can respond and sexual offenders can be successfully managed by the communities in which they live. The book is a highly readable, informative and welcome addition to the literature on sex offending, safeguarding and public policy.

This book review appeared in Therapy Today (December, 2011)

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