Community interventions for sex offenders: Evidence, sense, and funding

Ian V. McPhail

In the past week or so, certain professional circles (the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers) and the media (here and here) have been discussing a recent announcement by the Correctional Services of Canada that funding for Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) will be cut come March 31st and eliminated completely by the Fall of this year. However, as the story unfolds, the Canadian federal minister responsible for public safety has “asked the prison service to reconsider the decision,” but fully-restored funding may not be on its way. Time will tell where the chips will fall.

Though it is really not my story to tell, not having been involved in CoSA development or implementation, I will briefly share what CoSA is all about. Individuals who have committed sexual offences, been assessed to be “high risk”, and have served their prison term are released into our communities every day. How we approach their inevitable release probably says more about “us” (that royal “we”, society) than it does about the individuals leaving prisons. As Robin Wilson eloquently explained, CoSA started in the early 1990s as an approach by an Ontario (Canada) religious congregation to re-integrate a high risk sex offender into their community. By surrounding a high risk individual convicted of a sexual offence with a support network of volunteers and a few mental health professionals, CoSA provides certain things all humans, including deviant ‘Others’ like sex offenders, need: social supports that are present and stable in their lives, that care and want to see a better life for them. This kind of support seems like one of those common sense things that most of us desire and aim for in our lives. To me, the incredible thing about the first “circle” and the “circles” that are operating around the world is that these basic human values have and are being applied to sex offenders, a group of people fairly reviled in contemporary Western societies. CoSA seems like an example where “we” are showing our kinder, more understanding side.

On a more technical note, CoSAs alleviate some of the basic psycho-social problems that certain sexual offenders struggle with and may be related to why they offend (some of my research on social anxiety here, or more formally, here; cornerstone work by R. K. Hanson and others, here). In that vein, CoSAs are psychosocial interventions that appear successful at addressing the twin issues of re-offence reduction and being cost-effective (more on that below). Indeed, good reintegration strategies, writ large, include positive social networks and release contexts that include ‘social stability’ predict lowered rates of re-offence for general offenders. CoSA may indeed have its effects in reducing re-offending by sexual offenders through similar mechanisms (much of the published academic literature on CoSA is available here). In addition, CoSA is a wonderful example of ‘what works’ from the perspective of the dollars and cents (nextgen’s own Ian Elliott has done some stellar cost-benefit research, here, or more formally, here; and Grant Duwe has calculated cost-benefits of CoSA in the US).

As professionals, we all like to implement interventions that actually reduce re-offending and do so at a negligible cost, CoSA seems to be one of the interventions that has proven itself a winner and, most amazingly to me, one that arose naturally out of the goodwill of people. These types of approaches to human and social problems seem to work, regardless of whether the issue is sexual offending or mental disorder (for a fascinating approach to helping those experiencing mental distress re-integrate, see here). Perhaps the reason why these approaches work is because, as a close mentor of mine wrote, “We who work with sexual offenders need to demonstrate humanity to [them] if we are to expect them to demonstrate it later.” (Horley, 2003, p. 79).

Here’s hoping CoSA in Canada maintains full government funding for the coming years, though thankfully we are not helpless bystanders to the whims of political decisions:

If you’re in Ottawa, Ontario, here’s a fundraising event to attend on March 12, 2014. I’ve attended this comedy club and it was well worth the visits! Elsewhere in Ontario? Donate to the Peterborough Chaplaincy. In the UK, check it out and donate here.


Horley, J. (2003). Sexual offenders. In J. Horley (Ed.), Personal construct perspectives on forensic psychology (pp. 55-86). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Suggested citation: McPhail, I. V. (2014, March 23). Community interventions for sex offenders: Evidence, sense, and funding [Web log post]. Retrieved from


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