What Works with Sex Offenders Results from an Evaluation of Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability

By Duwe, Grant | Corrections Today, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

What Works with Sex Offenders Results from an Evaluation of Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability


Duwe, Grant, Corrections Today


The use of the circles of support and Accountability (COSA) model with high-risk sex offenders began in a small Mennonite community in Canada in the early 1990s. Grounded in the tenets of the restorative justice philosophy, the COSA model attempts to help sex offenders successfully reenter the community and, thus, increase public safety by providing them with social support by meeting their employment, housing, treatment and social needs. Each COSA model consists of anywhere between four and six community volunteers--one of whom is a primary volunteer--who meet with the offender on a regular basis. The results from several evaluations of a Canadian COSA model suggest it significantly reduces sex offender recidivism. (1)

In 2008, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (MnDOC) implemented Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability (MnCOSA), a sex offender reentry program for males based on the Canadian COSA model. The impetus for starting MnCOSA was rooted not only in the promising results reported in the initial evaluation completed by Wilson and colleagues, (2) but also in the findings from a 2008 study that examined the impact of broad community notification on sex offender recidivism.3 In determining that broad community notification significantly reduces sexual recidivism for Level 3 sex offenders (i.e., those determined to be high risk), the 2008 study found that sexual recidivism rates were highest among Level 2 sex offenders (those determined to have moderate risk). Therefore, when it began in 2008, MnCOSA targeted Level 2 sex offenders as part of a risk-management strategy to reduce sexual recidivism.

Comparisons Between the Canadian and Minnesota COSA Programs

The design and operation of MnCOSA has been similar, in many ways, to the COSA model. First, MnCOSA consists of a core member (the sex offender) and anywhere between four and six volunteers from the community. Second, the circle uses a covenant, which delineates the responsibilities to which both the core member and circle volunteers agree. Third, volunteers receive training following a selection and screening process. Fourth, the goal for each circle is to provide the core member with support during the first 12 months he is in the community. Fifth, in Minnesota, efforts have been made to establish outer circles that help support inner circles in their work.

The inner circle consists of the four-to-six community volunteers who regularly meet with the core member to provide support and help him remain accountable. The outer circle is comprised of community-based professionals (psychologists, law enforcement officers, supervision agents, social service workers, etc.) who volunteer their time to support the inner circle in its work.

Despite these similarities, however, there have been several notable differences between MnCOSA and the Canadian COSA. First, COSA was very much a grass-roots effort when it originated within a small Mennonite community, and later gained government support and involvement. In contrast, with MnCOSA, it was MnDOC (a government agency) that implemented the program and undertook outreach efforts to attract community interest and participation. Second, due perhaps to the different origins, the Canadian COSA grew organically over time, whereas MnCOSA has been developed more systematically--which is likely a consequence of the emphasis placed on evaluating the program since its inception. Third, in what is likely another consequence of the different origins for each program, COSA volunteers were mainly recruited from faith communities, while MnCOSA has experienced very little success in recruiting volunteers from local churches. Instead, MnCOSA has relied on students from local colleges and universities as a primary source of volunteers. Fourth, whereas Canadian COSA focused on working with offenders released at the expiration of their sentence, MnCOSA has not used the absence of post-release supervision as a selection criterion for core members.

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What Works with Sex Offenders Results from an Evaluation of Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability
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