Convicted rapists and paedophiles across the UK are being taken on ten-pin bowling and cinema trips in a taxpayer-funded scheme
The extraordinary soft-touch initiative means sex offenders who are freed early from prison are then escorted on recreational outings.
The scheme, known as Circles of Support and Accountability, is already running in England and is being offered to councils across Scotland after an initial trial in Fife.
As of July last year, there were 96 local programmes, known as ‘Circles’ – which consist of one offender and four to six volunteers – operating in England and Wales.
The annual average cost per circle is £9,800 and on average, this amounts to £295,500 across England and Wales (including the cost of volunteers) each year.
The scheme is based on the idea that ‘our neighbourhoods are not safer places when we reject or ignore those involved in sexual offending’.
Volunteers are recruited with the aim of ensuring that sex offenders are not ‘socially isolated’, as this can increase the chances of reoffending.
The mentors, who are supervised and trained at public expense, provide personal and practical support for the ‘lonely’ criminals, helping them to reintegrate into the community.
The scheme has run in England since 2002, and in 2008, Circles UK, a national body supporting the development, quality and effectiveness of the scheme in England and Wales was launched.
Between April 2008 and March 2010, the National Offender Management Service funded two pilot sites in Hampshire and the Thames Valley.
For these two pilots, the total annual cost of the programme (including the cost of volunteers) was £415,000.
But last night Scottish Tory chief whip John Lamont described the move to Scotland as a ‘slap in the face for victims’.
He said: ‘Perhaps if sex offenders such as these served their full term inside, it would allow the rehabilitation process to have more effect.
‘That would negate the need for these schemes which seem to be a soft-touch compensation for automatic early away days for sex offenders release.
‘This is a slap in the face for victims and their families who will not think this is the best use of taxpayers’ money, and it goes some way to reinforcing the impression the justice system spends more time catering for the needs of criminals than their victims.’
They ‘buy in’ the service at an average cost of £9,000 per offender. It is estimated that within five years around 100 sex criminals across Scotland will be participating in the initiative.
Paolo Mazzoncini, Sacro’s director of operations for the east of Scotland, said ‘social isolation and emotional loneliness’ have been shown to be ‘two factors which can increase the risk of reoffending’.
He said that in the scheme volunteers from the local community ‘form a circle’ around the offender – known as the ‘core member’ under its terminology – to provide a support network for the ‘personal and practical needs of the offender’.
Part of the volunteers’ job is to challenge the offender if they show ‘any signs of minimising their behaviour’ and to hold them accountable.
Mr Mazzoncini, on a YouTube video released in an attempt to reassure the public about the scheme, says: ‘Should circle members have cause for concern, they will report them to the authorities and they will be acted upon quickly and robustly.’
He stresses that the circles are not intended to replace statutory supervision of sex offenders by police and social workers.
One volunteer, known as Geoff, says on the video that the volunteers are there to ‘help society in general and try to ensure there are no more victims’.
Volunteers say the circle meetings can be ‘very light-hearted’ – and can even include a ‘trip down memory lane’ for the paedophile.
One of the sex offenders involved in the scheme says he was ‘lonely’ and had no friends, but the circle members gave him advice and helped to ‘keep him safe’.
He said the meetings were initially ‘a bit awkward’ but the volunteers helped him to ‘avoid risky situations’ and to develop greater confidence.
A source close to the scheme conceded that the recreational trips for sex offenders were an ‘emotive issue’ and the paedophiles could be escorted to the local library as well as to cinemas and bowling alleys, depending on their interests.
The insider said: ‘The idea is to provide support to them as they go about their normal daily lives.’
The sex offenders are expected to pay for their cinema tickets themselves, but the volunteers who accompany them have been trained and must be supervised at taxpayers’ expense.
The original idea is from Canada, where a survey by the country’s prison service found it reduced reoffending by 70 per cent.
Tom Halpin, Sacro’s chief executive, said: ‘Social isolation and emotional loneliness have been shown to be two key factors in increasing the risk of sexual reoffending.
‘Circles of Support and Accountability places a “circle” of highly-trained volunteers, supported by experienced professional staff, around an offender to monitor and support them with reintegration. It is not a replacement for existing public protection arrangements.
‘This is about keeping communities safe and making them safer, preventing people being harmed.
‘A circle is about working in partnership, assisting an offender to reintegrate into the community with the community as a resource.’
An initiative that sees normal members of the public socialising with the likes of convicted paedophiles and rapists is being run in Leeds for the first time. Crime reporter Sam Casey found out how Circles of Support and Accountability works.
ON the first floor of a city centre office building in Leeds, self-confessed paedophile and sex addict Jack is talking about how he is trying to keep control of “problematic thoughts”.
“When I used to walk through town and I’d see an attractive woman, I would completely fixate on her and try and capture a mental image of her,” he says.
“Now I’m able to glance at her and then concentrate on something else.”
The 39-year-old is discussing his progress since he started meeting once a week with two men and two women who, until relatively recently, he had never met.
They are members of his ‘circle of support and accountability’ – the title given to a charitable initiative being run in Yorkshire for the first time.
Since June, they have all volunteered their time, unpaid, to spend an hour with Jack each week.
Some of the sessions, like this one, are set aside to discuss the psychological issues he is dealing with.
Others are spent taking part in social activties. Jack’s circle, for example, has taken him out to play pool and, after he expressed an interested in cooking, to the supermarket to get ingredients for meals. Volunteer Kate, a 44-year-old mother of two daughters, is well aware that many people would find the notion of willingly spending time with someone capable of the crimes Jack has admitted unpalatable at best.
But, after studying the law around sexual offending as part of a degree course, she became interested in how Circles worked and now believes she can make a real difference.
“On a personal level, I think it’s necessary to help people like Jack.
“You can’t just throw them out on the streets and leave them to it,” she said.
“He’s just a guy who has done some things he’s not proud of or happy about.
“He has insecurities and problems like everyone else – his are magnified because of what he’s done. But he needs help.
“If I can sit here for an hour a week and it reduces the risk of him reoffending, it’s worth it.”
Inspired by the work of a church in Canada in the 1990s, the Circl es UK charity was set up to provide social contact for criminals who had served their sentences and were living in the community again.
Working in conjunction with the Probation Service and police, the idea was to give them structured interaction with other members of the public once they were no longer subject to legal controls.
Offenders who take part – called “core members” within the programme – are all on the sex offender register, are assessed as being socially isolated and are classed as posing a high risk to the community.
They must get involved willingly and have to admit to the crimes for which they have been convicted. The first time they meet the volunteers in their circle they must reveal the details of their offending.
‘Jack’ – not his real name – was released from prison at the end of last year having served an eight-year sentence for stealing £15,000 from a company, as well as committing a series of thefts and robberies, to fund his addiction to prostitutes.
After his arrest for those offences, he also admitted to having gone unpunished for sex offences against children. He told police if he was released from prison he would commit further crimes.
After being freed last year, he moved into a hostel before finding accommodation in Beeston, Leeds.
He said he was keen to do something which would help him stay crime-free.
“I was desperate to try Circles because I didn’t want to go back to prison and I was fed up of seeing psychiatrists – that wasn’t working for me,” he said.
“I was scared of being isolated when I came out.
“It’s early stages, but just the human contact, people being there for me, is making a difference. I live on my own in Beeston, I don’t really know anyone and I don’t have a good relationship with my family.
“The most important thing for me is that I’m challenged on my behaviour. If I’m on my own no-one’s there to correct me.”
It’s an illustration of how many people want to help that the charity is oversubscribed for volunteers.
Anyone who wants to become a member of a circle has to fill in an application form before being interviewed for the role. Only once they have undergone two days of training are they accepted onto the programme.
Another of the volunteers in Jack’s circle is Geoff, a 62-year-old full-time carer, father of two daughters and grandfather of three.
He said: “I care for people very deeply.
“I have the capacity not to look at what Jack has done, but to look beyond that to look inside. He’s a man like I am. He has done his time, he’s been in prison.
“He needs help, encouragement and support. I have the capability to encourage him. I’ve found it very rewarding, I’ve really enjoyed it.
“We’re helping to rebuild his confidence and self-esteem.
“Seeing him from the first moment he walked through the door to sitting with him an hour a week and listening to his fears and his doubts and what could make him go off the rails, I feel like we’re making a difference.”
Jack’s is one of two circles running in Leeds, with a third currently being set up.
The expectation is that each core member’s circle lasts for about a year before the group is disbanded. It costs £11,000 a year to run each one.
Melva Burton, director of Circles in Yorkshire and Humberside, said the potential benefit of the investment was difficult to quantify.
She said: “We’re working with some of the riskiest people in the community. If they reoffend, to get them back through the system, before they get to prison, costs £143,000 and that’s before you work out what it costs to keep them in prison.
“And you can’t even begin to put a price on the human cost to the victim.”
As well as the social activities and discussion sessions, Jack has learned relaxation techniques designed to help him keep a lid on the deep-seated issues that caused him to offend in the first place.
He admits they may never go away – but is confident he can continue his progress.
He said: “I can’t be cured of it, but I can learn to live with it – to manage it. The risk will be there forever, so what I can do is learn to control it.”
What about the victims ? It seems to me that there is a continuing trend for the abusers to get more support and help then the victims !!!!