Page last updated at 10:55 GMT, Friday, 9 April 2010 11:55 UK

Does 'befriending' sex offenders stop new crimes?

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Sarah explains why she joined a friendship circle to rehabilitate sex offenders

By Bob Howard

Paedophiles and other sex offenders are the subject of regular public outrage and demands for longer jail terms, but could "befriending" them be the best way to stop them committing more crimes?

"I said to myself my worst nightmare is someone who offended against very young girls because my nieces are those ages. Sure enough, that's exactly what I got."

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Sarah from London is a volunteer working with a category of former prisoners few of us would feel comfortable meeting at all, let alone on a regular basis.

Along with four others she regularly meets a man convicted of serious sex offences against children who has since been released back into the community.

She's part of a "circle" which befriends but also monitors offenders. The idea came from Canada where a survey by the country's prison service found it reduced re-offending by 70%.

The first circles in the UK were formed in 2002 and there are currently 63 running across England and Wales. It is based on the premise that while some offenders have friends and family to return to when they come out of prison, others have not and the more isolated they are, the more likely they are to re-offend.

Sarah
Your first instinct is to feel disgust and revulsion over what they've done
Sarah

Sarah says she was partly inspired to volunteer by the press coverage surrounding the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

"There was a lot of press talking about paedophiles, lots of big splash front pages saying 'evil'. I started to think there's got to be a way to stop this from happening in the beginning."

Sarah joined her circle through child protection charity The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, one of several organisations which run circles in the UK. Volunteers receive 20 hours of instruction and are supported by a liaison officer.

They meet offenders discreetly in local cafes where they talk about everything from what could lead to re-offending to finding work and fitting back into society.

Emotionally charged

Before the first meeting, they are told a lot of detail about the crimes and background of the offender. The meetings with the group - 4-6 volunteers plus the offender - are for about an hour, once a week, for the first few months, with the whole programme lasting one or two years. Each member of the group typically speaks to the offender on the phone at least once a week.

Anti-paedophile protest
Feeling against sex abusers often runs high, with demands for longer sentences

Despite her initial concerns, Sarah has been able to work with two offenders, both of whom have been imprisoned for offences against girls under 14. Sarah found the first encounter was highly emotionally charged.

"There's a lot of trepidation. You never know how you're going to react. Your first instinct is to feel disgust and revulsion over what they've done."

Sarah believes by questioning offenders about their behaviour and helping them settle back into everyday life she has helped to keep them from re-offending. In the case of the offender she is currently working with, Sarah believes her group has helped him turn round a long history of offending behaviour.

"I don't consider myself a bleeding-heart liberal. I'm someone who looks at the big picture and tries to find a solution. As far as the police tell us he hasn't offended in five years. He doesn't want to re-offend again, he doesn't want to create any more victims."

Grooming spotted

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation says of the 35 offenders who have taken part in their circles project so far, only three have been found to have re-offended.

In one of these cases, volunteers in East Anglia say they became suspicious of the offender's behaviour. Circle volunteer Ian says from the start they felt there was something wrong.

Person in shadows
Offenders may be without friends and family which hinders rehabilitation

"He was telling us things which just didn't sound right. We reported it. The police reckoned he was grooming a young boy."

The offender was subsequently sent back to prison.

Donald Findlater, director of research and development at The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, says great care is taken in choosing which offenders are selected. A determination to change their behaviour pattern is key.

"Not all sex offenders are suitable for a circle. Professional staff need to assess that the individual is committed to leading a good life and keen to get support in doing this."

He feels in the vast majority of cases the circles have been effective.

"I have no doubt that circles are making a tangible difference to the lives that sex offenders lead and to the safety of the public."

Paedophile website
There are some who believe sex offenders can never be rehabilitated

Circles are part of a wider programme to rehabilitate sex offenders. The National Offender Management Service offers treatment to around 1,200 sex offenders a year in prison and the same number who have been released back into the community.

Many experts with experience in rehabilitating sex offenders agree circles have potential to stop re-offending, but they are only part of the overall effort to stop further crimes being committed.

"Circles have a lot to offer, particularly in cases of very socially isolated sexual offenders or offenders," says David Middleton, professor of community and criminal justice at De Montfort University, and former head of the government's sex offender strategy and programmes.

"However they are not a substitute for experienced and well trained professionals."

The circles projects are part funded by government money channelled through local police, probation and offender management budgets. This frustrates some victims group who feel more money should be directed at those who have been abused.

Many are also highly sceptical that sex offenders can be rehabilitated. Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association of People Abused in Childhood, feels while circles may have some value, there are more reliable ways of monitoring offenders.

"Abusers cannot be trusted at their word. We tend to favour the idea that these kind of offenders need to be electronically tagged for a very long time."

Contact the programme by e-mail: donal@bbc.co.uk


Here is a selection of your comments.

Get real. With the exception of rapists and sex offenders, paedophiles are some of the most gregarious people. How else do you explain their ability to attract and ensnare their prey? Any success this program may have is because they have been identified and watched.
Tajima7, Ohio, US

Ostracizing sex offenders has a detrimental effect that ultimately encourages re-offending. Don't follow America's bad example! www.oncefallen.com
The One, Cincinnati, Ohio, USSA

No. Befriending them is not the way. Life imprisonment is the way. Too many times we have seen jail "terms" do nothing. They only commit offences yet again.
Me, Swansea, UK

I believe this is a very practical approach to a problem that will not go away. It is my view that the isolation created and felt upon re-entering this free market society leaves many people exposed to unsavoury people and ideas, where otherwise people would lead respectable lives - the recent case of the nursery children being a prime example.
Kevin , London

At last someone/some organisation is addressing the problem in a positive way. It may work, it may not work, but it is being addressed. After 30 years in law enforcement dealing with the victims and offenders, it was good to listen to the interviewee's positive approach and opinion
Glynn Jones, Norwich UK

Isn't the surest way to ensure that sex offenders do not repeat their crimes - and destroy the lives of others - to make sure that once they are caught and convicted, they are locked away for a very, very long time. We should protect the innocent and worry about the feelings of the guilty afterwards.
TQ, London

No matter how much time is spent talking to these sex offenders they will always revert to type. They have the instincts of a predatory animal, and possibly even less self control. Castration at birth is the only solution that I can see, but, as this is not possible, issue them with a permanent facial mark so that they can be identified in public places.
John Wren, Norwich

"…while circles may have some value, there are more reliable ways of monitoring offenders."

My understanding is that these circles are not just about monitoring offenders but supporting them in making choices, which are healthier for them, and which avoid creating further victims. An electronic tag won't provide the sort of support that a circle can. In fact it may be that a tag on its own simply emphasises the separateness of an already isolated individual, and may lead them more quickly towards re-offending.
David Bates, London, UK

If the difference between "us" and "them" is that "they" abuse children whilst "we" do not, then unless we make room for "them" to join "us", "we" perpetuate and contribute to the problem.
John Flynn, Yorkshire

I take my hat off to 'The Lucy Faithfull Foundation'. It sounds like they do a fantastic job; very few people have the compassion, integrity, courage and open-mindedness to fulfil this role. It also emphasises the importance of community: when we have friendship and accountability, others cease to be objects for us to use, and become people with cares, concerns pasts and futures.
Tim Fox, Beckenham. Kent



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