This post reproduces a short introduction that I was asked to write for a forthcoming evaluation report from Circles South East/HTVC Youth Services, who are also about to run a conference (on 6th July) to celebrate ten years of running Circles of Support and Accountability. I’ll be speaking at the conference. If anyone wants to attend, one or two places remain available: call 01235 816050 for more details.
Five years ago, I published a book on Reducing Reoffending (co-authored with Bill Whyte). The book covered a lot of familiar ground in relation to what we think we know by now about ‘what works?’ to support that outcome, but it also tried to look beyond that question by engaging more fully with the question of why and how people desist from crime. Exploring that evidence base produced a ‘Towards effective practice’ section of three chapters. The first the nature and processes of ‘offender management’ or (as we preferred to put it) change management; the second looked at how we could support the development of human capital (meaning the skills, knowledge and capacities) of people moving away from crime. There was then (and still is) plenty of material to draw on in writing those two chapters.
The third chapter in that section (and the final chapter in the book) posed more of a challenge. Our reading of the evidence about desistance – not least from the work of leading researchers like Jon Laub and Robert Sampson in the US and Steve Farrall in the UK – made obvious the need to look beyond the role of interventions in supporting personal change and to consider how social reintegration might be accomplished. Developing positive (or legitimate) social capital – meaning essentially the networks of relationships that generate and support opportunities — is central to the desistance process. Yet back in 2007, very little had been written about how professionals and others in and around the criminal justice system might undertake that task.
Unsurprisingly, the chapter starts out with theory – looking at the different ways in which Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman and Robert Putnam had developed and deployed the concept of social capital. It was easy enough to go on and provide evidence about how a lack of social capital seems to be apparent amongst persistent offenders and, more generally, in high crime communities. People in these circumstances might have tight ties to kith and kin (‘bonding social capital’ in the jargon), but they lack the kind of social capital that ‘bridges’ or ‘links’ them into new opportunities for living differently.
Despite that kind of bridge building – not least with local organisations, communities and employers – being a key part of probation’s history, by the turn of the century it seemed to have gone out of fashion; working on the ‘offender’ not with and around the person seemed to be the preferred approach by then. In the chapter, we followed Farrall in suggesting a re-engagement in working with families; both families of origin and families of formation, pointing to the importance of ‘generativity’ (making a positive contribution to the wellbeing of others) in the desistance process. We also argued for revival of community engagement and for proactive work with employers. Regrettably, we didn’t mention Circles of Support and Accountability in that chapter; perhaps I hadn’t come across the developing literature around COSA by 2006, when I was writing Reducing Reoffending. When I did, it wasn’t too difficult to join the dots (it is no accident that a collection I edited on ‘Offender Supervision’ in 2010 does provide coverage of COSA).
COSA impress and inspire me so much because they focus their not on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of those that might be most easily reintegrated but on those for whom the process is at its most challenging; those who are amongst the most vilified and isolated people in our society. Social capital is essentially about trust and reciprocity – about building and honouring relationships. The violations of trust and relationships, and the corruptions and failures of reciprocity involved in serious sexual offending, and in societal reactions to sexual offending, therefore make the development of social capital for this group of people especially challenging.
And yet, the evidence is that COSA can and do succeed in supporting reintegration and in keeping people safe. Moreover, they do it not through the imposition of incapacitation and control – not through a reliance on containing, constraining or excluding a threat, but through human processes of accountability, support and monitoring that enable, encourage and engender change. Basically, good people helping other people live better lives.
As an academic criminologist, I have to recognise both the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence base for COSA as a means of reducing reconviction. As with any intervention seeking that goal with this population, they face profound methodological challenges in seeking to ‘prove’ their effectiveness – among them problems of low base rates, selection effects, statistical significance, whether and how to run RCTs, and even more fundamental problems of how exactly to define success and failure.
But evidence is steadily accumulating, and perhaps we can and should begin to think about it in a different way. Desistance theory helps us to understand why COSA should work, and why they may work to support change. We know that their approach is based on helping to build relatedness and belonging and to create the relational contexts of inter-personal accountability that help all of us to live better and more rewarding lives. In this sense, they are and should be as much about doing ‘the good’ as they are about avoiding ‘the bad’. Perhaps that should be the focus of our evaluation of COSA, and of their further development. Better lives for better citizens, bounded and enriched by mutual accountabilities. Reciprocity has shaped human evolution – it still shapes human and social development. That’s how and why Circles work not just to avoid further damage, but to build something better.