To celebrate Restorative Justice Week 2023, we spoke to Riana Taylor, CEO of Circles UK, about community-based restorative justice (RJ) approaches to people with convictions for sexual offences, and the challenges encountered when delivering RJ approaches to such a stigmatised group of people.
Can you briefly outline what Circles UK does?
Circles UK oversees the provision of Circles of Support and Accountability through a network of Providers that operate in England and Wales. The Circles model is a community-based approach which harnesses the strengths and resources of local volunteers to hold accountable and support sexual harm causers in the community, typically following release after a lengthy prison sentence.
Each Circle comprises four or five professionally trained and supervised local community volunteers who meet the person who has caused sexual harm (called the ‘Core Member’ of the Circle). The Core Member’s involvement must be voluntary.
The Circle works towards the objective of ‘No More Victims’ and focuses on a person’s ‘positives’ and ‘strengths’ rather than their ‘deficits’ and seeks to ‘include’ rather than ‘exclude’ them. The Core Member is encouraged to rebuild a full and meaningful life whilst managing any ongoing and potentially risky behaviour.
For those who might not be familiar with the concept, how would you explain restorative justice?
Restorative justice is an approach to justice that aims to repair the harm done to victims. In doing so, practitioners work to ensure that people who have harmed others or have committed crimes take responsibility for their actions, to understand the harm they have caused, to give them an opportunity to redeem themselves, and to discourage them from causing further harm.
Restorative justice is also underpinned by the belief that someone who has caused harm should not be shunned from society but be supported to reintegrate back into their communities in order to continuously support them to desist from further offending or causing harm.
What motivates you to work in this field, and how do you see its impact?
It is well documented that people with convictions for sexual offences often tend to be socially isolated and this isolation is enhanced through the labelling, stigmatisation and social exclusion they experience. Core Members tell us that the Circle is often the first group that they are a member of where they feel safe, accepted and not judged. The Circle is the place where difficult conversations can happen, where support can be obtained for a range of issues and can take the place of a family or circle of friends when these structures are absent in the person’s life.
Probably most crucially, through the volunteers, the Circle represents a crucial community structure. This creation of community is an integral aspect of Circles as they facilitate the positive reintegration of the Core Member back into the community. Once the person is familiar with the Circle as community, the volunteers facilitate other appropriate community groups that the Core Member can access and join. This is an important part of the restoration process after punishment and why Circles are often described as a restorative solution. It incorporates the values of inclusion, citizenship, and forgiveness after a person takes responsibility for the harmful act/s they have committed.
What challenges exist in delivering restorative justice/your work, and how might they be overcome to improve accessibility?
The biggest challenge is the stigma that is attached to people who have committed sexual offences or sexually harm others. Our society is very punitive in this regard and does not easily afford a sexual harm causer a second chance, even though the reoffending rates are lower for this group of offenders than for those who commit non-sexual crimes.
Research tells us that people are more likely to desist from crime and harming others when they are included in society, supported to change and allowed to form meaningful relationships with others in a community setting. The biggest challenge for Circles UK and for Circles Providers is to convince commissioners, influencers, politicians and the public that our work with sexual harm causers help reduce sexual harm and prevent further victims. As a result, our work is underfunded which affects its reach and influence.
How do you see the role of restorative justice/your work evolving in future criminal justice practices?
It is my wish that we can adopt an evidence based approach to criminal justice instead of pursuing false narratives of ‘tough on crime’. An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. Restorative approaches do not excuse a harmful act or deny the harm that has been caused to victims / survivors. In fact, it does the opposite: it recognises the need to give a voice to the victim/survivor experience and to prevent further victims.
Visit Circles UK to learn more about Riana’s work.