Community support systems for people released from prison: A review of the literature

Jonathan Muirhead
Practice Adviser, Chief Probation Officer’s Team, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Jonathan joined the Chief Probation Officer’s team in September 2016. His main role in the team has been conducting research and developing training materials. Prior to joining the department, Jonathan completed a master’s degree in forensic psychology at Victoria University, with a focus on risk assessments for youth.

A major goal for the Chief Probation Officer’s Team is improving the outcomes for people released from prison or on community sentences. After hearing about how some countries had been using community support systems as an aid for people released from prison, we decided to look at the research around community support, in order to establish whether this idea might be feasible in New Zealand. As far as re-offending and reintegration research goes, the majority of the literature has focused on risk assessments and management at the individual level, and how different programmes may reduce the likelihood of each person committing a new offence. Although there have been large successes working at the individual level, there has been less research looking at reintegration and desistance through the wider lens of what can be done at the community level (Fox, 2015; Wright & Cesar, 2013). This review explores what work has been done to create community support systems for people who have offended, and how these support systems may be able to improve reintegration and promote desistance, on top of the work that is being done at the individual level.

Despite the comparatively small amount of research into community support systems, a number of places around the world have been trying to improve community support for those who are released from prison (e.g., Yellow Ribbon Project; Brown, 2013; Circles of Support and Accountability; Wilson, McWhinnie & Wilson, 2008; Wilson & McWhinnie, 2013). In Singapore, the Yellow Ribbon Project (YRP) has been running since 2004 (Graham & White, 2015). This programme has aimed to raise community awareness of the difficulties people who are released from prison face, emphasising the idea of giving them a second chance and “unlocking the second prison” (Brown, 2013). As well as trying to improve the public opinion of those who have been released from custody, the YRP also aims to get community members involved in a number of ways, such as being mentors, helping with everyday challenges like finding jobs and accommodation, and helping to support the families of those trying to reintegrate into society (Brown, 2013; Graham & White, 2015). As of 2013, there were more than 500 community volunteers involved with the YRP across 60 divisions in Singapore, some of whom were people previously on the receiving end of help from the YRP (Graham & White, 2015).

In San Diego, Senate Bill 618 (SB618) was operating between 2006 and 2012 to improve reintegration for those convicted of non-violent crimes. As well as using case planning, management, and motivational techniques, SB618 also emphasised the use of community social supports (Mulmat & Burke, 2013). The social supports involved case managers, parole officers, as well as anyone else in the community that the recipient thought would be helpful for their reintegration (e.g., faith leader, sponsor). Each person’s support team met regularly to ensure all of the reintegration needs were being met, so help could be given if required (Mulmat & Burke, 2013).

There are also a number of jurisdictions around the world that have been utilising a system called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) in order to improve reintegration outcomes for people released from prisons, referred to as “core members”. CoSA is a community-based service that uses volunteers to help those where social isolation may be a significant risk factor for increasing their likelihood of re-offending (often people who have offended sexually; Fox, 2015). As well as the volunteers, considerable input from correctional services is required in order to work effectively, as volunteers do not typically have training around risk management or keeping the public safe. CoSA services can be helpful for reintegration by reducing the “us vs. them” mentality, modelling prosocial behaviour, and by giving the core member support people to turn to when things are not going smoothly (Fox, 2015).

Together, these community systems give an indication of the sorts of things that are being done around the world to aid reintegration. A strong theme between these different support programmes is that of giving the community some of the responsibility for helping with reintegration, as well as giving people released from prison prosocial community members to look to for help and make them feel welcome. These programmes also embed a form of ritual into the reintegration process; something that is theorised to improve one’s feeling of belonging to the community (explained further below; Maruna, 2011).

As stated, the amount of research into community support systems’ effectiveness for aiding reintegration is limited. However, there have been a handful of empirical studies on re-offending rates, as well as a number of reports looking at the subjective experiences of those who received community support programmes. Before being disbanded in 2012, SB618 showed a lot of promise for reintegrating people after release from prison. When evaluating the difference between people who received community support as part of SB618 vs. those who did not, it was found that 68% of those who did not receive community support were arrested over 12 months post-release, compared to only 42% of those who did receive community support. On top of that, 32% of those who did not receive community support returned to prison for a new term, compared to only 9% of the community support group (Mulmat & Burke, 2013).

CoSA programmes have also shown promising results in terms of reducing re-offending, with one review showing a 70% decrease in sexual re-offending for those who had been involved with CoSA, 57% less violent re-offending, and 35% less general re-offending, compared to a matched control group over a mean follow-up of 4.5 years (Wilson, Picheca, & Prinzo, 2007b). Although these results are positive, it should be noted that 4.5 years is not considered a very long follow-up, as people who have sexually offended often remain offence free for a long period of time. A longer follow-up would be required to improve our confidence in these results. There has also been some research looking into the subjective experiences of those involved with CoSA programmes (Wilson, Picheca, & Prinzo, 2007a). Wilson, Picheca, and Prinzo (2007a) surveyed 24 core members, as well as other CoSA stakeholders, such as volunteers, professional services, and people from the wider community. It was found that overall, CoSA was well received. For core members, the majority of responses reflected positive feelings such as support, acceptance, and pride, with 86% of respondents believing that the programme helped them to adjust to the community, and approximately two thirds of the sample believing that they may have returned to offending without the help of CoSA.

The volunteers who were surveyed indicated increases in self-worth through helping core members, with 93% of the volunteers believing that CoSA was at least moderately helpful for the core member. For professional organisations, more than 80% of those surveyed believed that CoSA helped the core member increase their self-worth, as well as helping them feel accepted. Community members were also surveyed, and it was found that 68% said they would be more comfortable with a high risk individual being released if they knew they were being supported by CoSA (Wilson, Picheca, & Prinzo, 2007a). CoSA has been trialled in New Zealand, with mixed results. Due to the extensive oversight from Corrections required for CoSA to be fully effective in a New Zealand context, no new CoSAs are being started.

Of the research that has been done looking into how community support programmes may help with our reintegration efforts, it seems like allowing communities to share the responsibility for people who have offended may be of use. Helping reintegration through community systems can also fit well with current rehabilitative frameworks, such as Risk, Need, Responsivity (RNR; Andrews & Bonta, 2010), and the Good Lives Model (GLM; Ward & Brown, 2004). According to RNR, one of the major risk factors for criminal conduct is considered to be antisocial associates (Andrews & Bonta, 2010). With community support systems, people may have access to a number of prosocial peers, thus reducing the amount of time spent in the company of negative influences. Community support systems may also help with responsivity, or improving one’s ability to participate in rehabilitation interventions, through promoting inclusion and enhancing motivation to change.

In terms of the GLM, community support programmes may fit in with a number of the framework’s proposed primary goods, such as: Inner Peace, through reducing the amount of social isolation people who have offended often experience; Relatedness and Community, through providing a support network; and Pleasure, through reducing the stress of trying to change their lifestyle and reintegrate into the community by themselves. The GLM proposes that by enhancing primary goods, and the ways in which they are attained (secondary goods), risk factors are indirectly reduced (Ward & Brown, 2004). As well as fitting in with the leading rehabilitation frameworks, the idea of feeling welcome in the community also fits into a prominent idea in some literature on desistance (Sampson & Laub, 2005). Samson and Laub (2005) argue that one of the main drivers of desistance from crime comes in the form of turning points, which in this context could be seen as beginning to see oneself as a member of a prosocial community.

As mentioned previously, these community support programmes all have a sense of ritual embedded in them. There are milestones to accomplish, group members to turn to for support, and challenges to overcome. Maruna (2011) suggests that ritualistic practices are an important aspect of reintegration, or any large life transition for that matter, as they can create a sense of belonging to the community one is joining (just as initiation rituals create a sense of belonging within churches, clubs, sports groups etc.). From the outset, the criminal justice system is ritualistic in nature. As a society, we make a ritual out of the process of punishment that one must go through before going to prison (arrest, remand, sentencing etc.). This process is argued to make the person feel part of an “other” group. However, Maruna (2011) suggests the exit ritual that should make the person feel part of the community again after release is lacking. Often people are released from prison with little support or opportunities for inclusion, and thus do not get any feeling of belonging to the community that they are expected to re-join. Programmes and interventions that offer a sense of belonging and have ritualistic aspects to them, such as the aforementioned programmes, may help to bridge this gap for reintegration practices. It has also been posited that adding culturally specific rituals and procedures (e.g., pöwhiri), and involving cultural leaders (e.g., iwi and hapü leaders) in the process could help with indigenous groups, who are often marginalised by the criminal justice system (Marchetti & Daly, 2016).

The implementation of community support systems as an aid to reintegration practices is not particularly well studied yet, but from the literature available it seems like there is good potential for the practice to fit in a NZ context. A number of international jurisdictions have already started utilising community networks to aid with the reintegration of people who have offended, some of which have been shown to produce promising results. Not only have there been promising results from the studies that have been conducted, but using community support systems also has theoretical value, as it may fit in with both the GLM and RNR rehabilitation frameworks. There is also the potential for the ritualistic aspects of these community support programmes to aid in instilling a sense of belonging to those who are re-joining the community. The improved opinion of those released into these support systems from community members will also help the person’s sense of belonging, which is theorised to promote desistance from crime (Brown, 2013; Maruna, 2011). Despite a need for further study, the preliminary literature suggests there could be a beneficial result from including community groups in the challenge of reintegrating people who have offended back into NZ society. Combined with regular individual level programmes, this will not only take some of the burden off correctional services, but could also help to make communities safer overall (Wright & Cesar, 2013).


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