(Photo courtesy of the Vermont Department of Corrections)
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Counting down his last days in prison, Greg thought about his daughter, and the grandson he’d never met.
But his first days of freedom in Summer 2016 yielded more loss than gain. His fresh start was spoiled when Greg’s face appeared on the local television news. There were anticipatory town meetings, preceded by the police of his small Vermont town stepping up patrols, just for him. Within a couple months, Greg was asked to leave his stepfather’s house, before he ended up at a homeless shelter.
“The reintegration process has been tough,” Greg said.
Greg, a thin, quiet man who tends to tip-toe into sentences with the slightest of stutters, rarely receives the same sort of measured cadence in return. Most people are quick to label him — a predator, a molester, a danger to the community — despite his unassuming appearance. On a September day during his off-hours from Dunkin Donuts, Greg looks like an archetype New Englander, that of the middle-aged caucasian guy wearing a Patriots T-shirt. And for the most part, he understands why they’re quick to judge.
“Some of the people I went through the sex-offender program with, I wouldn’t want them near me or my kids,” he said. “Am I being a hypocrite for thinking that way? I don’t think I am. I have to look at other people’s perspectives, because it’s not about me anymore. My driving force is to not hurt someone else again — that’s my number one priority, totally.”
Seeing himself as part of a societal whole, rather than a loner on the fringes, has been an evolution brought about by the Vermont Department of Corrections. Immediately after his release, Greg, whose name we’ve changed in order to protect his victim’s privacy as well as his own, enrolled in a state-funded program, Circles of Support and Accountability, aptly nicknamed Circles. He spent his first 12 months outside of jail meeting weekly with a group of volunteers, his Circle, and building relationships with many of them beyond the sessions. These were not trained professionals, but community members trying to steer him away from recidivism and toward a new, productive social identity.
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For Greg, the experience was invaluable: “I’ve gained integrity, I’ve gained self-respect,” he said.
The thinking behind Circles is both profound and simple, though its motto of “no more victims” resonates throughout its philosophy. On the one hand, Circles are almost a form of group therapy in which sex offenders like Greg are able to discuss their triggers, impulses and sexual preferences, edifying themselves on their own instincts and behaviors. On the other hand, Circles embrace an idea that’s also become popular in addiction psychology, which is that authentic interpersonal connections can be one key to deterring relapses of behavior, including sex crimes.
Circles represent a rethinking of the role that communities can play in reducing sex crimes.
Inviting connection is the opposite of the reintegrative process for most of the 10,000 to 20,000 sex offenders who’re released from prison across the country every year. While the quantitative research on the Circles program is nascent, having looked at case studies of only a few dozen participants, the early returns are encouraging. According to the most prominent researcher of the model, Dr. Robin Wilson, Circles have demonstrated the potential to reduce recidivism rates by as much as 70 percent amongst sex offenders.
Perhaps more importantly, Circles represent a rethinking of the role that communities can play in reducing sex crimes. Most states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that isolate returning sex offenders — whether it’s through housing restrictions that force them to live on the outskirts of towns or online registries that require them to report virtually every movement. The registry for Pennsylvania readily supplies photographs of sex offenders of all severities, along with license plate numbers and other identifying information, a database that’s searchable by ZIP code.
Reformers argue that these registries, in pushing former offenders further to the fringes, actually lead to less accountability and more desperate behavior. State registries might be perpetuating sex offenses more than they’re preventing them.
It may be that programs like Circles are as much a key to preventing future victims as law enforcement. They could especially impact a state like Pennsylvania, which has 21,821 individuals listed at last count and adds more than 100 individuals to the list, on average, every month, according to a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in sex offender law. At a time when Philadelphia just elected its most progressive district attorney in history, the laws surrounding sex offenders, many of which were advanced during the tough-on-crime 1990s, still receive scant attention. It may be time for a more empathetic approach to the registry.
In the late 1990s, a Mennonite pastor named Harry Nigh, living in Ontario, Canada, formed the first Circle. It was born out of a similar scene to what Greg faced upon his return home last year. The high-profile release of a sex offender triggered uproar and angst in Nigh’s city, which brought about an idea: Rather than push the returning offender out of sight, wouldn’t it be safer to surround him with eyeballs — even friendly ones?
Today, Circles exists in a small number of anglophone countries, including England and New Zealand, though its presence in the United States has been slow to gain steam. Of the handful of communities that have developed Circles throughout the country, most fall on stolidly progressive turf, in states like Minnesota, California and Vermont. But Circles have a foothold in North Carolina, too, which currently has a Republican-controlled statehouse and a political environment more akin to Pennsylvania than those more progressive states.
The North Carolina county of Durham — a liberal bubble, like Philadelphia, inside a right-leaning state — runs Circles through a Criminal Justice Resource Center (CJRC) that’s been in place since the 1990s. In addition to post-release programs like Circles, the CJRC has become a public health and legal resource in the community, housing everything from pretrial counseling to drug treatment services to youth diversion programs.
“When the criminal justice resource center started all those years ago, the argument was that if we can keep people from interacting again with the criminal justice system” — prevent recidivism, in other words — “that saves us money in the long run,” says Drew Doll, Durham’s Circles coordinator. “The average recidivism rate for Durham is 55 to 60 percent. For those people who spend a year with us [in the Circles program] that rate is under 10 percent. It makes a huge difference.”
Vermont’s program is fairly unique in that it’s open to non-sex-offending returning citizens, too, who are deemed “high risk” by the state — a label that’s intended to apply to the most heinous criminals, often repeat offenders. The state launched its first Circle in 2006 with funding from the federal Second Chance Act. But the investment truly began eight years prior, when the Vermont DOC worked with municipalities to launch publicly run spaces called Community Justice Centers (CJCs) that work to improve restorative justice statewide. (Restorative justice is the idea that individuals on both ends of the criminal justice equation, victims and perpetrators, require healing and attention.)
There are now 20 CJCs statewide, many of them hosting Circles. Practically every offender around whom a circle is formed, such as Greg — these are called “core members” — is a recently furloughed individual referred by the state department of corrections. While Circles are hyperlocal, they’re supported by a network throughout the state.
In many ways, the adoption of Circles reflects a broader commitment to criminal justice reform that permeates throughout the state government.
“The question isn’t whether or not you want Dave to come back out to this community. That’s happening. He’s going to be released,” says Derek Miowdownik, head of restorative justice in the Vermont DOC. “The question is, do you want to wrap him in a set of relationships to contribute social capital?”
Achieving that end is no guarantee, though Miowdownik and others have steadily honed the Circles program to try to get there. Typically, a Circle begins before release, with a half-dozen to a dozen volunteers going through an intensive, two-day training, before meeting with their core member inside prison. The training exists to set strict ground rules for the program, and also, to get volunteers to confront their own biases of sex offenders.
The reasons why core members and volunteers participate vary. For some returning citizens, Miowdownik concedes, Circles begin as just another program to impress their parole officer with. For others, it’s more of a lifeline.
“What else was I going to do? When I was in prison, I attempted suicide. I attempted it before I even got in. I couldn’t handle what I’d done and I needed the support,” said Olivia, another convicted sex offender from Vermont whose name we’ve also changed. “[My parole officer] told me that there were community members, regular human beings, who wanted to help.”
The array of crimes that fall under the umbrella of sex offender are diverse. In some states, a public urination charge gets your face on the state sex offender registry. In others, including Pennsylvania, a sext between an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old might result in a high schooler getting placed on the sex-offender registry, right alongside rapists. The patchwork of state laws determining who is a sex offender, coupled with the homogenization of the term, has resulted in “sex offender” evoking the worst of the worst in most people’s minds.
"The question isn’t whether or not you want Dave to come back out to this community. That’s happening. He’s going to be released."
Olivia doesn’t fit the stereotype. She’s a former New England teacher convicted of statutory rape for having sex with one of her high-school students. Her criminal record was clean prior, and, after a year in jail and another five on house arrest, it’s been clean since. But her status on the lifetime registry of Vermont has cost her several jobs and partial custody of her children, and even worse, ruined her relationships with neighbors.
“It’s what I call the boogieman theory,” she said. “The fact that I’m a sex offender automatically makes me the boogieman. I’m that person who you don’t know when they’re going to strike.”
Prior to the Circle, Olivia couldn’t come to grips with her crime.
“Part of the reason I couldn’t admit the crime to myself was that if someone had done that to my kid, I would’ve wanted them dead,” she said. But within her Circle, sharing her story elicited care and support, rather than dread and anger, as she’d come to expect in most of her life. “The fact that there was [a volunteer] with kids close to the age of my victim, who wanted to help me, astounded me. It gave me so much more faith in my fellow human beings.”
That’s a restorative effect in itself.
“[Circles] is a really interesting model, because it’s not rocket science,” said Dr. Kathryn Fox of the University of Vermont. “It’s both simple and profound. It’s the idea that people who’ve had their liberty deprived from them and have been in this surreal world of prison, oftentimes for years, will struggle on the outside without connection.” The qualitative research published by Fox points to the program’s success lying in the basic structure of its relationships, which accrue between neighbors — rather than a therapist to a client or a parole officer to a parolee.
Circles formally take place weekly, though volunteers and core members often build relationships that extend to social settings, phone calls and daily check-ins. Although no gifts are allowed — even a cup of coffee — the intellectual and emotional reciprocity exchanged between volunteers and core members help to build up the restorative pillars of positive social behavior and self-reliance.
“It’s not just being accountable for the things you did wrong; it’s taking responsibility for doing something right,” says Karen Holmes, Circles director for the Essex County Criminal Justice Center in Vermont.
While the emphasis of Circles is generally on the core member — with the ultimate goal of preventing future victims — it also serves to break down the barriers between society and sex offenders. Volunteers are encouraged to bring their daily problems to the group, sharing struggles of their own in reciprocal fashion.
“For a lot of core members, having somebody investing in them their daily stuff, dignifies them,” said Miowdownik. “It de-pathologizes them. And that’s a reintegrative effect in itself.”
This July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Jose Muniz, a man convicted of the indecent assault of a 12 year old in 2007, could be removed from the state’s lifetime registry of sex offenders.
The ruling stemmed from a technicality: When Muniz was originally convicted, his crime would have carried a 10-year imposition of the registry, but when he was actually sentenced, in 2014, the Pennsylvania legislature had passed a much more punitive law surrounding sentencing, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as SORNA. While under SORNA, Muniz would have received a lifetime registry requirement, his lawyers argued that additional punishment was being applied retroactively to the crime. A majority of the Supreme Court agreed.
The state legislature, on the other hand, had other thoughts. A bipartisan coalition on the House Judiciary Committee welcomed testimony on the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in September. Although the ruling narrowly affected roughly 4,500 people on the lifetime registry who would be eligible for removal after 10- or 20-year sentences instead of remaining on the list for life, the testimony would have made you think the threat was much larger.
“The recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has sent a collective chill through the veins of Pennsylvania’s 4,048 crime victims who are registered with the OVA [Office of Victims Advocate] to receive timely notification of the Sexually Violent Predators in their respective cases,” said Jennifer Storm during the PA house hearing. Storm is the state’s victim advocate, a position appointed by the governor. “Our phones have been ringing with victims in crisis over what this means for them.”
Reform-minded critics of state registries argue they’re ineffective and broadcast more fear about sex offenders than the actual risk merits.
Pennsylvania’s version of Megan’s Law requires the state to notify victims and families of sex crimes committed by a “sexually violent predator” — the distinction given to the most dangerous offenders on the sex offender registry — of any changes in residence, employment or access to a vehicle that the perpetrator makes while living on the registry outside of prison. Advocates of stringent registry requirements across the country often argue in lockstep with a 2003 United States Supreme Court opinion that upheld Alaska’s registry, which said that recidivism rates of sex offenders are “frightening and high.”
But reform-minded critics of state registries argue they’re ineffective and broadcast more fear about sex offenders than the actual risk merits.
“This is an atrocious system where we immediately lump everyone together, regardless of who they are, what their crime was, or how long ago it occurred,” said Aaron Marcus, a public defender who represented Muniz and attended the September meeting in Harrisburg. “[Offenders on the registry] all feel presently dangerous. And that’s the message the government is trying to send with the sex offender registries: These people are presently dangerous.”
Recidivism rates among sex offenders are actually substantially lower than those of the general criminal population. Despite the portrayals of sex offenders as imminent recidivists in pop culture, the numbers tell another story. According to a Bureau of Justice report that analyzed the paths of nearly 10,000 sex offenders released from prison in 15 different states in 1994, only five percent were arrested for another sex crime within three years of release. In some states, the rates are lower, though generally in the single digits.
Then again, sex crimes are notoriously underreported, making any attempt at leveraging the numbers far from a precise equation. That’s true of recidivism numbers as well as the statistics bandied about by law enforcement that often portray an imminent and inflated level of danger.
For example, during the Pennslyvania House hearing, David Freed of the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office cited the identical BOJ report mentioned above to say that “nearly 4 out of every 10 [male sex offenders] returned to prison within 3 years” — which is true, according to the study, except it says nothing of the rate of repeat sex crimes. Most return trips to prison are on account of parole violations. It’s one of several commonly cited data points that are routinely dismissed by social scientists working in the field of sex crimes, though are regularly used in political speech.
The Harrisburg hearing did not feature testimony from any academics, legal experts, or criminal justice advocates who might have pointed this out.
“This is the third rail of criminal litigation,” said Marcus. “As far as an informational session goes, this was a scare tactic designed to frighten the representatives.”
The environment in Pennsylvania is consistent with that inside many state capitols across the country, whether they’re controlled by red or blue votes. In 2014, Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law requiring volunteer firefighters to be screened for sex crimes (only the second prohibitive prior arrest, the first being arson). In September of this year, Texas passed a law prohibiting the majority of sex offenders from living in college dormitories, which applies to both for public and private universities. At a time when consciousness around criminal justice appears to be expanding, the awareness of this subset of the law remains scant.
The Commonwealth has taken Philadelphia’s lead on criminal justice reform when it comes to everything from marijuana decriminalization to sanctuary city policies protecting undocumented citizens. If a statewide movement to rethink sex offender policies were to occur, it, too, would have to begin in Philly.
Establishing Circles on a local level would require political will for an issue that’s never politically palatable — likely requiring a combination of support from the incoming DA’s office, continued advocacy by defense attorneys like Marcus and buy-in from clinical providers of rehabilitation work with sex crimes, such as the Joseph J. Peterson Institute. Even then, Circles might be ripe for public backlash along the lines of what’s greeted proposed medical marijuana dispensaries in certain Philly neighborhoods.
Circles would go a long way toward combatting Olivia’s boogeyman theory, which is deeply imbedded in American culture. On the same day that Storm spoke in Harrisburg, the New York Times published an eight-minute op-doc, titled “A ‘Frightening’ Myth About Sex Offenders.” It described the sensationalized connotations of the term sex offender, such as the tenor that dominated the Pennsylvania House testimony.
Even at a time when inequities in the criminal justice reform seize the national spotlight with regularity, the population of sex offenders is often an afterthought. Humanizing the trials and tribulations of convicts has spread into a movement, but sex offenders remain marginal and alien.
Perhaps that’s the most restorative aspect of Circles: exposing the myth that sex offenders are anything less than people with flaws.
“The people who’ve volunteered, they’ve helped me through some rough times,” said Greg. “They don’t judge me. They didn’t know what to expect, but they got to know me — not from the headlines, not from my past, but me as a person.”
This story was edited by Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen. Reporter Malcolm Burnley’s travel and writing was supported by The Reentry Project.