Reducing Recidivism Requires Strong Political Will

Published by — The challenge is to keep offenders from just cycling through traditional systems that don’t work.


Back in the 1990s a Mennonite minister, Harry Nigh, developed a protocol for radically reducing recidivism among sex offenders.  The common assumption to this day — probably even yours — is that nothing can be done about this particularly creepy form of criminal activity.  Not true.

The Circle of Support and Accountability, or CoSA, works amazingly, as I first learned from expert Robin Wilson.  Furthermore, CoSA works so well, it’s being used to divert or re-integrate those who’ve committed all sorts of crimes.  In fact, in a recent workshop designed to scale up Restorative Justice in Vermont, the practitioner attendees talked as if it were the go-to model for virtually all social service problems.  We’ll get an example in a moment.

Know first that the CoSA research data rocks:

*  83% reduction in recidivism for sexual offenses

*  73% reduction in recidivism for all types of violent offenses

*  71% overall reduction of in all types of recidivism in comparison to matched groups of offenders who did not have a CoSA.

The model is fairly simple.  Picture an inner and an outer circle, with the “core member,” or offender, at the center.  The inner or informal circle is made up of family, friends, neighbors, fishing pals, whoever is willing to have regular, frequent contact with the person getting help.  CoSA for the sex offenders mostly uses trained volunteers, but volunteers could be added to any team if the person is very isolated.

The outer circle consists of professionals who work on the more complex barriers to success — addiction, housing, psychiatry, social services.  Here’s a graphic of the model.  Wrapping a person in structured support seems like an intuitive way of solving social problems.  Think of extended families working together to raise a particularly difficult kid.

Nathan suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome

A young man we’ll call Nathan came before Judge Pamela Williams’ mental health court in Nova Scotia.  (Last week’s column has more about her and mental health courts.)  Babies born of women who drink alcohol heavily during any part of the pregnancy can be born with conditions like hyperactivity, developmental delays, speech and language delays, and low intelligence.

Nathan could not, as Judge Williams said, “connect the dots.”  Cause and effect meant nothing to him.  Consequences were meaningless.  He’d been jailed by the traditional courts for a variety of criminal charges.  His drug involvement only increased his disruptiveness and irrationality.  His parents were at wits’ end.  Lastly, it had come to light that he was being sexually exploited by an older man.  The traditional court judges sent him over to Judge Williams, whose claim to fame was her remarkably low recidivism rate.

Judge Williams had become increasingly adept at using CoSA.

As she put it, in the Vermont workshop, the challenge was to build Nathan an “external brain.”  Parents are their children’s external brain until the kids are mature enough to make good decisions on their own.  Nathan would never make great decisions autonomously.

Over her years as a judge, Williams had collected expert collaborators into teams, one for health, one for job skills, homelessness, and so forth.  Depending on the case, the appropriate team would help her form that professional circle of experts who understood how to keep problematic people out of the courts, prisons and hospitals.  When the experts had done their assessments, Williams brought the immediate parties into her court for a restorative-justice conference — the pros, Nathan and his parents.  Together they designed a plan that could work for everyone, especially Nathan.

Nathan was far more high-maintenance than Jane, the bipolar gambling addict of last week’s story.  Unlike Jane, Nathan’s informal inner circle will always need ongoing professional support.  So the first order of business was to get him into a structured living environment capable of monitoring Nathan’s constant needs.  That allowed his previously-oppressed parents to become his fun companions on outings and visits.

Nathan’s access to the internet was supervised.  But importantly, Williams’ mental health team alerted the police to online sexual exploitation, and that led to a conversation about working with the cops on the problem.  Restorative justice uses the crime at hand to look into the future for ways to eliminate or mitigate issues the crime has revealed.  The professionals helped Nathan fill his free time with more productive activities.  Through assessments, they found that Nathan could work successfully as a flagger on road projects — work that makes him so proud that he’s highly motivated to cooperate.

Oh, you betcha.  CoSA is labor-intensive.  But it works.  Williams considers it her judicial charge and challenge to keep offenders from cycling through traditional systems that don’t work.

Ah, but at what cost?  Next week, the last column in this series will consider costs.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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