ST. ALBANS – Coming Home, a new documentary by Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien currently touring the state, leads with the fact that, of the 700,000 convicts released every year in the U.S., somewhere between 65 and 68 percent will be reincarcerated within the next five years.
“Some people would look at that and say, ‘Well surely they’re bad people,’” a narrator says over the film’s opening minutes. “But if you look at that, there’s something clearly systemic in the way we treat people when they’re inside and the way we treat them when they get out.”
The film’s opening sequence follows that fact with another statistic: The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
In 2005, the state of Vermont began the gradual process of adapting a criminal justice experiment into a full, statewide program to address that recidivism, a word referring to the tendency for a past criminal to reoffend.
That program, the Circle of Support and Accountability (CoSA) program, is the subject of Coming Home, which, through the lens of CoSA, follows five individuals as they attempt to rebuild a life after serving time in prison.
A CoSA seeks to pair someone recently released from prison with at least three other volunteers from their respective community and a member of the program’s respective restorative justice center, which facilitates the program and the former prisoner’s reintegration.
They meet in formal circles regularly to check in with the client. Volunteers also meet with the client in the community to simply spend time together.
While there, the circles serve as a sort of base for the prisoner’s reintegration, offering a steady connection to that community and a support structure for offenders who, after several years in prison, may have frayed any past relationship and have no real financial ground to stand on.
“Sometimes we’re the only support these people have,” said Hillary Brown, a restorative reintegration specialist with the Franklin Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center (FGI-RJC). “Can you imagine coming out of prison with no one?”
Brown and FGI-RJC Transitional Housing Coordinator Courtney Whittemore said the connections forged in the CoSA circles are sometimes strong enough that, in some cases, there are former members who will turn up at the Restorative Justice Center (RJC) to meet with people long after the state-mandated year of CoSA is finished.
“We always see them after the program, just because they appreciate the connections,” Whittemore said, estimating that 80 percent of those who pass through the CoSA system stay connected to their CoSA circle’s members and the RCJ. “That’s how we know we’re successful.”
“I was so taken by the circle process,” O’Brien said. “They’re such a powerful, wonderful place.”
The CoSA program
The state of Vermont designed the CoSA model after a Canadian counterpart that helped reintegrate high-risk sexual offenders with their Ontario community.
The Canadian model, facilitated by a private faith-based organization, reportedly had a success rate of more than 70 percent in addressing recidivism among sexual offenders, according to a study recently commissioned by the Community Justice Network of Vermont.
Local groups in Vermont began experimenting with the process at the local level before the Vermont Department of Corrections adopted a statewide CoSA program, which is operated out of restorative justice centers like the FGI-RJC in St. Albans.
A state-funded study of the program found that Vermont’s statewide program had had a similar impact to its Canadian forefather, with preliminary data confirming “a significant reduction in recidivism across several offense classes, including a 74 percent reduction in sexual re-offenses.”
That study, penned by Marc Wennberg, quotes a previous study conducted by University of Vermont researcher Kathy Fox that attributes CoSA’s successes to CoSA’s ability to “model normative and ordinary relationships of mutual obligation and respect, and aid in the de-labeling process by focusing on the other attributes of offenders beyond their criminality.”
An interview with Fox is prominently featured in Coming Home.
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