Joanna Tebbs Young
CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY
“I believe in second chances if there is genuine investment in changing for the better,” said Marietta Yeager, a volunteer in Rutland’s division of Circle of Support and Accountability (CoSA).
Yeager, along with her husband, Jean, has been involved in social justice programs for a number of years. After learning about the Human Kindness Foundation in Chapel Hill, N.C. fifteen years ago, which, she said, helps prisoners, “become better than their mistakes,” she wanted to help this particular population herself. Trained to become a CoSA volunteer in Barre two years ago, Yeager began working last year with BROC’s Rutland County Community Justice Center. The organization is now seeking more volunteers like Yeager, those who also believe in second chances and want to make a true difference in someone’s life.
According to a document on vermont.gov, CoSA, a program which began in Canada in the 1990s, is a community-based, nonprofessional model for assisting high-risk offenders returning to communities. What came to be funded by the Second Chance Act of 2007: Community Safety through Recidivism Prevention and underwritten by the U.S. Congress in increasing amounts over the past several years, CoSA came to Vermont in 2005 and took off in earnest in 2006 after research conducted in the mid-1990s. Analyzing the opinions of approximately 400 Vermonters regarding offenders, the incarcerated, and the state’s Justice and Corrections systems, beyond the anticipated answers about how the system could be improved, the research provided a surprise: the overwhelming number of people who wanted to be involved. “The communities felt that non-violent offenders could be handled by the community if they were empowered to do it,” explained Maggie Ganguly, program specialist at the Rutland Justice Center, “Restorative Reentry came out of this initiative.”
The vermont.gov document goes on to point out, while other jurisdictions that utilize the CoSA reentry program confine their use to the management of high-risk sex offenders, Vermont is unique in applying the model to other types of serious offending.
These offenders — known as core members — are those coming out of incarceration and re-entering the community. “We all hold the core member accountable for their previous and current actions that have a negative impact on the community by listening and redirecting and helping the core member see the possible outcomes of their actions,” said Ganguly. “In addition, we support and praise the core member’s positive actions, giving encouragement to continue a path of accountability, safety and responsibility.”
“Core members often have several positive professionals in their lives (probation officers, treatment providers, service providers, etc.), but often lack other positive social supports,” said Chris Barton, restorative systems administrator at the Vermont Department of Corrections. “The [CoSA] volunteers model how to relate to others in positive ways, which hopefully will translate into them having better relationships with those in their lives and the rest of community.”
The trained CoSA volunteers who model this behavior and provide support by “facilitating restorative activities,” do so in groups of three to five people. No specific skills or background is required of the volunteers; the Justice Center is instead looking for “open-minded, empathetic people who take an interest in making their community safer and helping someone along the way.” After a day and a half of training, groups meet at BROC for one day per week for one year (with the option to meet outside the circle for other activities such as grocery shopping or a visit to an art gallery, for example), the volunteers help core members:
• Repair the relationship between core member and community
• Promote community and victim safety
• Enhance the coordination of services and community connections
• Cultivate positive behaviors to encourage and prepare for a successful future
The results of these CoSA programs are impressive. While a study into the impact of CoSA in Vermont is still on-going, a report recently out of Minnesota found “MnCOSA decreased the risk of rearrest for a new sex offense by 88 percent and the risk of general recidivism by 49-57 percent” and “produced more than $2 million in cost-avoidance benefits, which amounts to a little more than $40,000 per participant.” Canadian studies have found “a significant reduction in recidivism for high-risk sexual offenders — at times as great as a 70 percent reduction in re-offending among those with a circle of support & accountability compared to those without one.”
Marietta Yeager agrees. “Often [core members] are the forgotten ones and have an enormous struggle against the stigma of having been incarcerated,” she said. “Trying to find safe housing and a secure job are two huge hurdles to overcome, especially if there is no family or community support available.”
While also giving credit to the “true church work” of a few local congregations who have at times give that one donation which “makes all the difference,” Yeager believes in the CoSA program wholeheartedly. “Once someone has ‘done the time’ and is earnestly trying to make it as an honest citizen, I believe we can do something to ensure that kind of success.”
Yeager pointed out that over 65 percent of those incarcerated in the U.S. are in prison for nonviolent crimes. “Ask anyone who is involved and you will most likely hear that our criminal justice system is in great need of an overhaul. The cost to taxpayers is enormous, but the cost to families — and humanity — is even greater.”
Recognizing the price our own community is paying, Yeager said, “One hour a week, for the duration of a year, is the least I can do to help a fellow human being who is striving to make a change. I’m showing up to give encouragement.”
“We cannot sustain the path we’re on,” she continued, “but it won’t change unless more of us become aware of the indecent way we treat others.” And so she requests of us all: “Do what you can.”