The vast majority of people convicted of violent offenses will one day be released from prison. When that time comes, we will have to grapple with how to provide them with the tools and resources they will need for successful reentry, while also keeping our communities safe. What if those two mandates were not mutually exclusive? What if community members were directly involved in this process, rather than leaving the task to the state? What if people convicted of some of society’s most reviled crimes felt that their community wanted them to succeed? What if — working together — the state, community members, and returning citizens could ensure that there are no more victims?

This is the premise of a model known as Circles of Support and Accountability (“CoSA”). The CoSA model fits within the framework of restorative justice, which is an approach to crime that focuses on repairing harm and fostering accountability on the part of the responsible party(s). Restorative justice is a form of community justice that is non-coercive, non-punitive, and inclusive. The principles of restorative justice have been effectively applied at every stage of the criminal justice system from pre-adjudication to release. Restorative justice has taken hold around the world, but is still not widely practiced in the United States. The state of Vermont is an exception.

In the late 1980’s, the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) conducted a survey to better understand residents’ attitudes about crime and punishment. They learned that residents wanted to play a more active role in determining appropriate responses to crime in their communities. So the DOC took the radical step of turning over some of its responsibilities to communities, eventually building an infrastructure of “community justice centers” across the state tasked with running several different restorative-justice-based programs, CoSA among them.

The CoSA model relies on recruiting and training community volunteers to provide ongoing social support, as well as practical assistance to the “core member,” i.e., the individual being released, in order to ensure community safety and effective reintegration. Core members in the Vermont CoSA include people convicted of serious and violent crimes who are considered high risk for re-offending. Each CoSA is more accurately described as two circles: an inner circle of community supporters, to whom the core member agrees to be accountable, and an outer circle of people with professional expertise, who help guide the core member in specific ways.

There are concrete economic barriers to successful reentry that are inextricably linked to income inequality and the disproportionate representation of low-income people of color in the prison system. These along with limitations on the housing and employment available to people with a criminal record, must be addressed through policy change. However, there are also barriers to successful reintegration related to the fraying of personal relationships that frequently result from crime and incarceration. These are best addressed through a restorative process.

Research suggests that CoSAs are effective because they fill a key gap between prison services and the community supervision and compliance generally provided by probation and parole. Core members often have little by way of family support networks, they have a distorted sense of self as a result of long-term institutionalization, and they lack basic life skills. CoSAs address all of these needs. Most core members participating in the Vermont CoSA program are still under state supervision but the support of the circle helps them to comply with the stringent conditions of their release. Nationwide, just over 25% of parolees are returned to prison within five years as a result of technical violations.

Participating in a CoSA has a profound impact on volunteers as well as core members. “I’m not a bleeding heart,” explained one volunteer. “I don’t like all of the people I’ve met who have done bad things.” But she went on to explain, “The bottom line is that every human is a human being. Every person has some light in them that you don’t want to snuff out, and you find that out by talking with people.” The implication of her observation is that by breaking down social distance between returning citizens and other community members, community members are more likely to understand the complicated back-stories, the internal and external struggles that lead people to commit harmful acts. And therein lies the profound transformative potential of restorative justice. By orchestrating face-to-face dialogue between people who would otherwise know each other only as an abstraction or a stereotype, we can all reclaim a piece of our own humanity.

About the author

Mika Dashman

Mika is an attorney, mediator and restorative justice practitioner. She is a New York State-certified mediator and she mediates criminal court cases and facilitates community conferences through New York Peace Institute. Prior to beginning her work in alternative dispute resolution, Mika spent more than six years providing direct legal services to indigent individuals at several New York City non-profits, including Housing Works, Inc., where she also worked on all aspects of the agency’s civil rights impact docket. Mika is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the City University of New York School of Law.