By Chidi Umez, the CSG Justice Center
When David Brunell was released from prison after nearly 20 years, at first he found the routines of everyday life overwhelming. “I couldn’t go shopping alone,” he said, for “fear of everything around me.”
Brunell, a resident of Montpelier, Vermont, was better able to face the challenges of reentry to his community through involvement in a Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program.
The foundation of the COSA program in Vermont dates back to the early 1990s, when former Commissioner of Corrections John Gorczyk began exploring restorative justice approaches—alternatives to incarceration that would both help individuals with the challenges of their return home and engage the surrounding community in the reentry process.
“Commissioner Gorczyk decided to look to the public as to what they want from corrections,” said Laura Zeliger, Community & Restorative Justice director at the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC).
Under Gorczyk’s leadership, the Vermont DOC organized volunteers from local communities into citizen-based boards, which led, in 1998, to the creation of what are now known across the state as Community Justice Centers (CJCs). Today, there are 20 CJCs in Vermont—one in every county—managed centrally by the Vermont DOC. CJCs provide intensive support services in employment, housing, mentoring, and restitution management for people returning to their communities from incarceration. They rely primarily on volunteers to deliver these services.
Providing Circles of Support
As part of the CJC system, the COSA program—which was partially funded through 2010 and 2011 Second Chance Act Adult Demonstration grants—arranges support groups specifically for people whom the DOC case managers have identified as being at a high risk of recidivating. In the COSA program, individuals are allowed to complete their prison sentence in their community while under supervision by the state parole agency and COSA.
Each COSA participant, known as a “core member,” is assigned to two support groups. The first is an “inner circle” of four to six community volunteers who provide social support and act as accountability partners as the core member transitions back into the community. The second group is an “outer circle” of professionals that can include therapists, probation officers, and case managers who help the core member fulfill his or her release conditions. The inner and outer circles work together to ensure the successful reentry of the core member and meet weekly to discuss his or her progress.
“I had never experienced the unconditional support, care, and friendship that [I experienced as a core member],” Brunell said.
Evaluating the Program
In October 2013, Pennsylvania State University completed an assessment report on five Vermont COSA sites. The primary goals of the assessment were to examine the program operations, analyze the program’s capacity for data, and identify any challenges with the program model.
According to the assessment, “both program fidelity and data management at Vermont COSA are excellent, and the program is well-resourced and appears to have longevity.” However, the assessors did recommend that Vermont DOC conduct a randomized control trial in the future for a more rigorous evaluation of its COSA program.
“This evaluation has been invaluable in sharing our story,” explained Vermont DOC Director Derek Miodownik. Now plans are underway to conduct a quantitative study to evaluate the effectiveness of the Vermont COSA program as a model for evidence-based practices across the United States.
With the help of his own COSA circles, Brunell has been able to maintain employment with the Montpelier Parks and Recreation Department for the past eight years.
“Without COSA in my life, I would have never made it,” Brunell said.
To read more about the Vermont DOC COSA program and Pennsylvania State University’s evaluation, see Evaluability Assessments of the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) Model, Site Report: Vermont COSA.