Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Circles of Support and Accountability for Sex Offenders in England and Wales: Their Origins and Implementation between 1999-2005(1)

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Circles of Support and Accountability for Sex Offenders in England and Wales: Their Origins and Implementation between 1999-2005(1)

Article excerpt

Abstract

Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) are an innovative, volunteer-based means of supervising sex offenders, usually upon release from prison, which were 'transplanted' from Canada to England and Wales at the turn of the 21st century. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and the Lucy Faithful Foundation, were concerned with both the extreme demonisation of sex offenders in the press, and with the need to find better ways of safeguarding children from sexual abuse. The Home Office was simultaneously developing new mechanisms of public protection and funded three COSA pilot schemes between 2002 and 2005. The processes of development and implementation were essentially informal and improvised, crucially dependent on the choices, decisions, energy, status and reputations of particular individuals in particular places and networks. Circles flourished at the intersection of a nascent official concern with public protection, and the determination of faith-based professional activists (and others) to reaffirm the redeemability of sex offenders, but there was never a "structural logic" which made the emergence of COSA inevitable. Drawing on information from the key players, this paper details the processes by which they came into being.

Introduction

Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) are an innovative, volunteer-based means of supervising sex offenders, usually upon release from prison, which were 'transplanted' from Canada to England and Wales at the turn of the 21st century. They were initially taken up and piloted by the Home Office, albeit on a small scale, and their early development can be illuminated by Jones and Newburn's (2007) insights into "policy transfer". In England, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was the body through which transfer was effected, and had it not been for their initiative - which reflected both a long tradition of Quaker involvement in penal reform and their considerable experience of turning spiritual and social concerns into enduring (and eventually independent) secular projects2 - it is quite possible that Circles may never have come to the attention of the Home Office. The fusion of Quaker discernment and Home Office judgement proved timely. It meant that there was just sufficient official appreciation of what Circles might be able to offer in Britain before the media-driven moral panic about released sex offenders that had steadily gained momentum in the late 1990s intensified into a serious confrontation between the redtop press and government over the issue of "naming and shaming", when eight year old Sarah Payne was murdered by a known paedophile in July 2000 (see Silverman and Wilson (2002) and Critcher (2003) for detailed analyses of this moral panic).

Although COSA continue to exist in England and Wales, this paper seeks only to explain their origins and implementation between 1999 and 2005. To appreciate why the Home Office (and some local criminal justice agencies) came to value Circles it is necessary to understand how policy towards sex offenders had been developing throughout the 1990s. Numerous national and international studies had documented the activities of "predatory paedophiles" and enlarged professional understanding of the scale and nature of child abuse. (Wyre and Tate 1995; Grub in 1998). The tabloid media were quick to demonise these offenders (Kitzinger 1998), and to elide the clinical term "paedophile" with the generic categorisation "sex offender". While increased levels of multiagency working and changes in legislation would have occurred anyway in response to heightened sensitivities towards paedophiles, the strident and aggressive tabloid critique formed the backcloth against which changes occurred. It created an image of released paedophiles/ sex offenders so loathsome and terrifying that no -self respecting community would be prepared to tolerate them in their midst. Indeed, communities were encouraged to take steps to shame and/or expel them. …

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