BRATTLEBORO—It’s a fact of Vermont’s corrections system that most sexual offenders will complete their prison sentences and return to the community at large.
On Thursday, June 9, the Brattleboro Community Justice Center (BCJC) will host a public forum at Brattleboro Union High School for the community to discuss issues regarding individuals who have committed sexual assault and to ask questions about Vermont’s re-entry programs.
The thought of sexual offenders returning to society can strike fear into the hearts of survivors and community members, for whom the image of a sexual predator lurking in the bushes represents the unthinkable.
And, for returning offenders, the idea of re-entering a world that hates their existence also represents the unthinkable.
As a press release for the event puts it, “The Justice Center wants to create a space where members of the Brattleboro community may come together and discuss questions and concerns regarding offender re-entry into the Brattleboro area, and how we may best ensure safety in our neighborhoods for all citizens — even if the discussion can be hard and painful.”
Dr. Robin Wilson, a clinical and forensic psychologist who works with sexual offenders, will open the forum with a short keynote address.
He will also present in Brattleboro and Montpelier as a consultant working through his private practice, Wilson & Associates.
Wilson, with over 20 years experience in his field, helped found Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSAs), a model that has been used as a tool in preventing violent and sexual offender recidivism in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
According to BCJC Executive Director Larry Hames, Canada has used CoSAs as a tool to lower the recidivism of people who have committed sexual offenses and are high risk for doing so again.
The CoSAs model, said Hames, works by surrounding a newly released offender with community volunteers.
The volunteers fulfill dual roles: They support the former offender, called a “core member,” by providing support, acting as a sounding board, and accepting him with kindness.
Concurrently, said Hames, the CoSAs volunteers hold the core member accountable, making it clear that hurtful behavior, or re-offending, are unacceptable.
Keeping the community safe is the end goal of a CoSA, said Hames.
According to Wilson, at a “basic level,” a sexual offender seeks the same “need for physical intimacy, driven by a biological need to reproduce,” as most other people.
Although the need may prove an appropriate human drive, the ways sexual offenders fulfill their needs are not, said Wilson.
But often people engage in antisocial behavior because they’ve lost their healthy links to their communities, he said.
“Someone who has nothing to lose doesn’t care,” said Wilson, who helped develop the CoSAs model in Canada.
According to Wilson, offenders returning to a community that rejects them run the risk of having no support networks, no sense of safety, and no reason not to re-offend.
The BCJC hosted a CoSA last year, and it expects to continue the program as part of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recently stated goal to reduce Vermont’s prison population.
The “general philosophy” of CoSAs, said Wilson, is that “no one is disposable” in a community — even people who have caused harm.
According to Wilson, CoSAs volunteers set up an environment of “The Golden Rule,” reinforcing for the core member that he is welcomed and must treat the community with respect.
The result, said Wilson, is that the core member begins to recognize that participating within society — having a home, maintaining relationships with family and friends, and respecting society’s rules — can provide a positive experience.
This new life becomes more important to protect than his former “inappropriate sexual needs,” said Wilson.
“People who have people who care about them, tend to care more about themselves, and by extension, others,” he said.
Wilson understands that community members feel “wary and fearful and righteously angry” about sexual offenders, their actions, and the looming threat of re-offending.
But offenders serve out their prison time and do return.
“Essentially, communities cannot stick their head in the sand and pretend they’re not there,” he said.
A circle’s beginning
According to Wilson, the CoSAs model began in response to the release of Charlie, a “high-risk, repeat child abuser” from a Canadian federal penitentiary.
In a 2005 report to the Correctional Service of Canada, Wilson and colleagues Janice E. Picheca and Michelle Prinzo described how the community responded to Charlie’s release with “picketing, angry calls for political intervention, heightened media attention, and 24-hour police surveillance.”
At the time, Wilson worked in “middle management” within the Canadian correction system in charge of sexual offenders.
Wilson said he received a call requesting he assist Charlie.
“In some respects, I was the person who wasn’t particularly helpful,” said Wilson of the CoSAs program’s humble origins.
Because Charlie had finished his prison sentence, the Canadian government considered him a private citizen. Wilson said that, in Canada, it’s “virtually illegal” for federal civil servants to provide services for private citizens.
So Wilson referred Charlie to a Mennonite pastor who agreed to surround the former prisoner with congregants willing to offer “humane support and a realistic accountability framework.”
CoSAs as a tool
The report by Wilson, Picheca, and Prinzo states that, in studies conducted after a pilot program in Canada, 90 percent of core members credit their CoSAs with helping them readjust to post-prison society. Two-thirds felt that without their circle “they likely would have returned to crime.”
Interviews with community members showed that 68 percent said “they would feel safer if they found out that a high-risk offender in their community belonged to a [CoSA].”
Studies also showed that core members re-offended less than other former offenders. Compared to their released counterparts, core members showed a 70 percent reduction in sexual offenses, 57 percent fewer violent offenses overall, and a 35 percent lower rate of all types of recidivism.
Wilson feels prison sentences, in general, don’t work as well as the CoSA model.
First, he said, correction departments tend to paint all sexual offenders with the same brush.
Yet not all sexual offenders are the same. Some are not violent. Some are unlikely to re-offend. Yet states often end up spending money on long-term punishments that may not fit the offender.
Also, said Wilson, a prison sentence is “unsatisfying for the community.”
When an offender is sent to prison, the debt is to the state, not the community. Instead, community members become reduced to witnesses of the events that caused them harm and powerless to direct the outcome, he said.
The CoSAs model owes its core structure to Aboriginal Canadian culture, Wilson said.
In many Aboriginal nations, when a member perpetrates harm, the community elders, the perpetrator, and the person who was hurt jointly determine restitution.
Although it is impossible for a person who has committed a sexual offense to take back his actions, said Wilson, it is “entirely possible to commit to never re-offending.”
A panel discussion with Brattleboro community members will field questions from the public after Wilson’s address.
The six panel members will include Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney David Gartenstein, who also sits on the Brattleboro Selectboard; Carol Scott, victim advocate from the state’s attorney’s office; Brattleboro Police Department Det. Lt. Mike Carrier; Mike Earley, a treatment specialist for those convicted of sexual assault; a representative of All Soul’s Church; and Phil Damone, from Windham County Probation and Parole.
The forum will run from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Brattleboro Union High School auditorium. ASL interpreters are available. For more information, contact Julie Etter, an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, at 802-251-8143 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.