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Volunteers sought for ‘no new victims’ program

Volunteer coordinators who think they have a hard time recruiting for their particular nonprofit have nothing on Russel Balenger. Read more… By Scott Russell 

Volunteer coordinators who think they have a hard time recruiting for their particular nonprofit have nothing on Russel Balenger.

Balenger, community engagement director for Amicus, is seeking volunteers to work with sex offenders leaving prison. He needs people with the time and talent not only to befriend offenders as they re-enter the community but also to help hold them accountable for their actions.

The effort is called Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability (MnCoSA). The mantra: “no new victims.”

McCoSA replicates a successful Canadian program that has reduced recidivism among sex offenders.

The circle consists of four to seven volunteers and the offender, who is called the core member. The circle begins meeting before the core member leaves prison and meets regularly for a year. The members write a covenant, which lays out expectations.

Volunteers might help the core member with practical support such as finding a job or making appointments, and with keeping a human connection. But they also hold the core member to the agreement, including following probation terms.

Amicus has a long history of supporting ex-offenders. It is collaborating with the Minnesota Department of Corrections on MnCoSA. Both Amicus and the Corrections Department are recruiting and training volunteers. Amicus will work with Ramsey County circles; Corrections will work with Hennepin and Olmsted county circles.

Balenger said he started recruiting volunteers with “a soft approach,” asking people to consider it. “Everybody was like … ‘I have to go home and talk to my wife,’ ” he said. “You knew you would not see them again.”

Then he took the direct approach. He told people it wasn’t for everyone. Some people might not qualify. They would need to go through background and reference checks, interviews and training.

“It seems like when they didn’t feel the pressure of having to jump into something, they began to deliberate more,” Balenger said. “That is when we started to see a little turnaround.”

Recidivism is down
The question is not whether sex offenders return to community life. They do. The question is who will be supporting and watching them when they return.

MnCoSA will focus on Level 2 (moderate risk) offenders. As of Jan. 1, Minnesota had 1,366 Level 2 offenders: 453 in custody; 794 in residential settings (513 discharged from supervision, 281 supervised); 22 in halfway houses, and 59 in Department of Human Services facilities. (The other 48 either had their registration expire or had died.)

A state Corrections report (PDF) says sex offender recidivism is down significantly since 1990, a trend the state associates with longer, more intense post-release supervision.

Bill Donnay, the Corrections Department’s director of risk assessment/community notification, said MnCoSA is focusing on Level 2 offenders because they have higher recidivism rates than the higher-risk Level 3 offenders.

For offenders released between 1997 and 2002, 7.5 percent of Level 2’s had reoffended by Jan. 1, 2006 compared to 5.2 percent of the Level 3’s, he said.

No, that doesn’t make sense. You would expect higher-risk offenders to have higher recidivism rates.

Donnay explained that Level 3 offenders are higher risks as individuals, but also get more intervention after release, including broad community notifications and community meetings. That could contribute to lower recidivism in their ranks.

Level 2 offenders “seem to be the segment that needs our focus,” Donnay said.

The goal: 30 circles

Three MnCoSA circles have already started. The goal is to do 30 circles and evaluate the program against a control group.

Amicus has sought volunteers among faith communities. (Volunteers are told they can’t proselytize, though some offenders ask for support from people of a particular faith.)

Jay Lindgren, Amicus vice president for research and consulting, said that volunteers make a significant commitment, including undergoing 30 hours of training. They hear from advocates for crime victims. “Some of these guys can really minimize the harm that they have done,” he said.

MnCoSA doesn’t want volunteers who pity offenders or who see themselves as investigators. Volunteers are friends, he said, “but friends who care about ‘no more victims.’ “

The program is still a work in progress.

Lindgren said the nonprofit role is critical, because of its community ties. He hopes the MnCoSA evaluation sheds light on the best roles for nonprofits and government in running such programs.

“How do we sort those [roles] out so we bring out the best in both of us?” he asked.