Offenders Reintegration: Help With a Range of Social, Economic and Personal Challenges

A way that Australian correctional specialists can protect the community is by reducing the likelihood of ex-prisoners reoffending after they are discharged. One approach for reducing the risk of recidivism is the provision of treatment, services, and support of prisoners during their incarceration and after their release. This approach is attaining prominence in Australia and internationally. It acknowledges that prisoners are challenged by a range of social, economic, and personal challenges that can be barriers to a crime-free lifestyle. Circles of Support and Accountability help to achieve this mission by effectively focusing on the safe reintegration of people returning home from incarceration, usually high-risk or high-needs people convicted of a sexual offense. Offender reintegration is important to the correctional system as prisoners need support with assistance and supervision to desist from crime and to successfully reintegrate into the community, whilst avoiding a relapse into criminal behavior.

In the criminal justice system, reintegration refers to the process of re-entry into society by persons that have been in prison or incarcerated. Reintegration includes the reinstatement of freedoms not previously had by individuals as a result of being in prison. Reintegration theory is premised on the belief that crime represents a breach or absence of community. Rather than solely blaming offenders for crime, proponents of reintegration theory argue that society is responsible for creating conditions that breed criminals. As such, it is mandatory that the same society must be part of the solution to help reintegrate offenders. The rationale for reintegrating offenders is based on two moral premises. Firstly, it is better for people to be in harmony with one another, and secondly, wherever harmony and community are absent, they should be actively pursued. A punitive approach stigmatizes and belittles offenders. This results in a further breach of community and disruption of harmony in society. To this end, reform and reintegration of offenders should always be the ultimate aim of incarceration.

Many prisoners experience significant challenges in reintegrating after their release from prison. These challenges can be compounded by social disadvantage and complex needs related to drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, acquired brain injury, homelessness, and unemployment. Circles of support (CoSA) are designed to support offenders during their re-entry into society following imprisonment, it is about building a support network for the individuals, and through that support they get accountability. It creates a reason for individuals to make progress after exiting prison and creates an opportunity for extended guardianship. It originated in both aboriginal Canadian traditions and the United States Native American traditions. When individuals sought to resolve a problem, everyone needed to sit in a circle, face each other as equals, and talk about it. It is a powerful example of people working together as a team. This association was started by Mennonite Pastor Harry Nigh and implemented in 1994 in Hamilton, Ontario. Harry Nigh assisted a mentally disabled sex offender called Charlie who had served time in prison for sexual offenses throughout his lifetime and this is what triggered the development to this reintegration program.

CoSA tackles the highest risk individuals or those who have served long sentences and helps to reduce the participant's likelihood of reoffending, thereby, increasing public safety. CoSA is the recruitment of volunteers from the community. These “circles” are volunteer-driven. CoSA is based on a theoretical basis where volunteers establish relationships with core members that are built on sympathy, equality, and a covenant to work toward building a lasting and responsible friendship. The precise models can vary subject to the location and needs of the jurisdiction, but CoSA models primarily include a group of volunteers who meet with the core member weekly in the initial post-release period, which is usually 60-90 days and the full circle meets weekly to discuss the many challenges of re-entry. Community volunteers receive information about the offender, and formal training, and have access to an advisory committee for ongoing support and guidance from clinical, justice, and law enforcement professionals. Community professionals are also fundamental to guaranteeing these projects are running effectively.

When implemented correctly and consistently, risk need and responsivity principles help staff focus resources to where they will have the greatest impact on reducing recidivism and meeting the needs of people released from prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities. The CoSA model is motivated by the following set of key values: (1) no one is disposable; (2) no one does this alone; (3) no more victims; (4) the community is responsible for its victims and those who offend against them; and (5) health and safety are among the primary concerns of the community (Justice Center 2019). Through these key components, it connects people to the community, informal social support is being met, and formal support is also accessible. CoSA is now adopted in many parts of the world, for example, the United Kingdom and Australia. Currently, Australia is trailing their first Circles of Support and Accountability in South Australia and Townsville.

Offender reintegration and its programs such as CoSA have many critics. Offender rehabilitation has largely been criticized for having little effect on reforming offenders. Following the publication of Robert Martinson's research on rehabilitation programs in a prison called “What works”, Martinson argues that apart from a few isolated cases many initiatives to rehabilitate offenders have not yielded significant results. Thus, the rate of recidivism remains abnormally high. Another research report conducted by Brenner Brown and Nino Rodriguez called “preventing homelessness among people leaving prison” notes that within a three-year period after release, about two-thirds of ex-offenders re-enter prison after reoffending. However, it should be noted that the high rates of recidivism amongst offenders should not essentially be used as an indicator that rehabilitation and reintegration do not work. Rather, it is the almost challenging difficulties that offenders face upon release that force them to resort to a life of crime once again. Reginald Wilkinson is the Director of the State of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Scholars such as Wilkinson and Martinson note that as far as rehabilitation and reintegration are concerned, nothing works. Such arguments are used by proponents of the retributive approach to support its introduction into the criminal justice system. Martinson refutes claims for the rehabilitative approach and argues that it is faulty and overlooks the 'normality' of crime within society. He looks at crime as one of the 'normal' ways people use to respond to the harsh realities they live under. While it is true that in many instances rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders have not worked, such an argument should not be used to discard the rehabilitative approach within the criminal justice system. Rather what is needed is to address the deficiencies in the delivery of offender reintegration services.

Imprisonment serves primarily as a correctional service to protect society against crime, and to ensure execution of remand. To accomplish this duty, there are four main goals in correction services: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Circles of Support and Accountability successfully continues to contribute to the correctional system by deterring and rehabilitating these individuals. CoSA achieves this through having weekly check-ups between the core member and volunteer every day in the initial post-release period and a full circle meeting weekly. This routine helps the core members from reductivism in their initial release, by offering counseling and support so members don’t feel abandoned or find the transition from a controlled environment to an uncontrolled environment difficult. This approach also helps to both make the community feel safe and to create a safer community.

Nearly all prisoners will return to the community at some time but given the high proportion of prisoners serving short sentences, it is estimated that 44,000 prisoners are released each year in Australia. Consequently, the majority of prisoners are highly likely to re-offend once released into the community and this tends to be due to a breach of an order or a new crime committed. As a consequence, they have a high rate of return to prison. Evidence revealed that in Victoria, 43.7% of prisoners released during 2015 to 2016 returned to prison within two years, this rate is comparable to the Australian rate of 45.6%. This is a costly cycle, in 2004 to 2005 $1.7 billion was spent on 120 custodial facilities housing a daily average of 24,092 offenders. Given increasing imprisonment rates these costs will continue to escalate unless we actively seek to prevent re-offending among prisoners post-release. This creates a strong front for why offender reintegration is particularly important and necessary in order to benefit the community.

While much research supports the proposition that programs can be effective in reducing recidivism, it is not possible to confidently state how effective any individual program is. Despite programs being delivered for many years, there has not, until recently, been any evaluation of their effectiveness. Corrections Victoria has now commissioned the Australian Institute of Criminology to evaluate core programs, including violence and sex offender programs. This will provide a much-needed evidence base to promote effective rehabilitation.

“Interventions for prisoners returning to the community” is a report prepared by the Australian Institute of Criminology. They found that one principle of effective rehabilitative programming was that interventions should be multimodal, they should be used in combination to address the range of issues that confront each offender. Prisoners tend to be challenged with social, psychological, and economic disadvantages that can impede integration into the broader community. These factors must too be addressed if offender rehabilitation is to be effective. Furthermore, formal rehabilitative treatment should be followed-up with informal aftercare, in part to reinforce newly acquired skills in a range of settings. Although all sentenced prisoners are eligible to participate in a range of programs, there are significant delays, at all points, from screening to program delivery, resulting in long waiting lists. In April 2015, more than two-thirds of serious violent offenders had not been screened or assessed for programs within the required timeframe. Despite representing nearly, a quarter of the prison population, remandees have very limited opportunities to access programs to address their offending behavior. This is a lost opportunity for early intervention and therefore reduces its effectiveness. Some researchers have argued that research evidence to date indicates that other punishment approaches such as prison, are best used for purposes other than reducing recidivism for example conviction, and that rehabilitation should be used to minimize re-offending.

There is a higher rate of prisoners returning to prison this is caused by many reasons, mainly due to a breach of an order, re-offending, or committing a new crime. With effective reintegration programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability, the risk of prisoners re-offending will decrease. The cost of prisoners is extremely expensive costing the Australian government and taxpayers 110,000 per prisoner per year. By preventing reoffending through this approach, it will reduce the costs significantly.

Key criticisms for this approach include that they ex-prisoners could have had mental illness or substance abuse before entering prison and therefore could still have those at the exit of prison or that their inability to manage substance abuse could be the reason they went to prison. Thus, they could continue the same behavior if it isn’t resolved, making CoSA an ineffective approach. A common stigma is that they may not be accepted back into the community, leading to social isolation and reoffending. There are multiple risk factors mainly that they may have social challenges such as poverty, unemployment, education, and independent living skills and this would be a result from failed reintegration. Furthermore, studies conducted in 2003 on 238 Queensland ex-prisoners show that 21% were Homeless, 84% were unemployed and 50% had outstanding debts, each of these factors significantly contributes to possible reincarceration. Individuals may face adjustment difficulties with finding the transition from a highly controlled environment to an uncontrolled environment difficult, whilst in prison things often change with family and friends which means when they exit prison they may not have the required support.

The discussion of results clearly shows that there are many flaws in the programming of offender rehabilitation and reintegration. Offenders face multiple challenges that push them to resort to crime as a survival mechanism. However, as discussed, this could be due to the circumstance that prisoners have been on significantly prolonged waiting lists in order to be eligible to participate in a range of programs. Furthermore, resulting in minimal support and a lack of a controlled environment during the pre-release phase, thus triggering recidivism. Therefore, this correctional approach must make minor improvements to aid successful offender reintegration into society. A minor improvement could be the new programming of the current model of offender rehabilitation and reintegration. Until this is accomplished it is difficult to come to a conclusion about its effectiveness as a few cases being successful isn’t enough to prove it works. Nevertheless, once altered, this approach would no doubt lead to enhanced outcomes such as greater employment, housing, behavior, and social skills and a reduction in recidivism from ex-prisoners.

Overall, it can be said that Circles of Support and Accountability actively focus on effectively reintegrating offenders safely by offering assistance and supervision to desist offenders from recidivism. Circles of Support and Accountability have an excellent vision. However, whilst this is a positive approach to the re-entry of offenders into society, research indicates, it needs improvements to increase its effectiveness. There is little support to prove Circles of Support and Accountability actively works, as the successfulness of a few cases isn’t enough validation.  

07 July 2022
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