A New Way to Treat Sex Offenders

The History of Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA)

Seven years before passage of Megan’s Law in 1996, a terrible crime took place. In October 1989, a masked gunman abducted 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling from St. Joseph, Minnesota. Though police and community members moved heaven and earth, he has never been found. The Wetterling Act, which President Clinton signed September 1994, required states to create sex-offender registries accessible to police, though not the public. (Megan’s Law two years later would change that by requiring registries to be open to the public.)

A thousand miles east of where Jacob Wetterling was abducted, another movement was taking shape. In spring 1994, a psychologist at the Correctional Service of Canada named Bill Palmer was desperate to prevent a high-risk child molester named Charlie Taylor, who had served his prison sentence and was being released, from victimizing another child. So Palmer connected Taylor with a local Mennonite minister, Harry Nigh, who agreed to have several members of his congregation help keep an eye on Taylor.

That group, which called itself “Charlie’s Angels,” was the first Circle of Support and Accountability, or COSA–a model that has since been adopted in 16 sites in Canada and has spread to four U.S. states and Great Britain. The service matches each offender with four to six volunteers, who provide emotional support and lend a hand on practical details, from job applications to transportation. Volunteers are trained to monitor the offender’s behavior for signs of relapse.

Since then, more than 200 Canadian sex offenders have participated in COSA. Taylor died in 2005 having never committed another sex crime. The first study of the program, published in 2005 by the Correctional Service of Canada, found that offenders who had been through COSA were 70 percent less likely than those who hadn’t to return to prison because of a sex offense. A second study conducted in 2007 and a third, published in the journal Sex Abuse in 2009, both found an 83-percent drop. That is, these evaluations suggest that COSA significantly reduces sex offender recidivism.

The mantra of COSA is “no more victims.” As the national advisor to Canada’s COSA program put it to me for a 2011 article in Good magazine, “The volunteers aren’t there to hold the hand of a sex offender because he’s a poor sad guy who everybody despises. Yes, we’re there for that, too, because he’s a human being and no one is disposable. But the reason is that we don’t want to see any more sexual victims.”

COSA fills a gap–high-risk sex offenders normally are released into the community without much supervision after they’ve served their terms. (Though it’s important to note that the group who are high risk is a minority–the vast majority of sex offenders show low recividism rates, according to a range of studies.)

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