By Will Coldwell
Circles UK's volunteers work alongside police and probation services in running a programme to cut reoffending
When James was released from prison, a year after being convicted for several child sex offences, he felt vulnerable and alone. "There was a lot of just sitting, staring at four walls and twiddling my thumbs," he explains. "It was boring, tedious and frustrating."
The common scenario James found himself in while on licence is also a dangerous one. Statistics show rates of recidivism of between 30% and 50% for serious sexual offenders. Isolation and a lack of normal social interaction can be a significant trigger for reoffending.
This is where Circles UK has been making an impact. The charity works alongside police and probation services to provide convicted sex offenders with "circles of support and accountability", small groups of public volunteers who ensure the offender, or "core member", makes a smooth transition back into society. So far the success rate is impressive, of the 160 offenders it has supported since pilot projects began in 2002, only eight have been reconvicted.
"Without support we end up with an isolated, potentially dangerous offender with nothing to lose," says Annabel Francis, co-ordinator for Circles East of England.
"This really is our worst nightmare because we know they'll reoffend."
- No you don't!
The Circles concept originates in the mid-90s when a group of Quakers in Canada befriended a repeat sex offender and successfully rehabilitated him. This developed into a more formalised programme, which first appeared in the UK 10 years ago.
Thanks to core funding from the Ministry of Justice and bolstered by a growing body of academic research, the charity Circles UK was founded to oversee the development of the scheme across the country, and runs 11 projects. Francis is seeking volunteers for a new one in Peterborough.
Still, Circles has needed to overcome some degree of public antipathy for a scheme that gives so much attention to the offender, rather than the victim.
In 2010 the Sun described Circles volunteers as "paedo-pals". More recently, an appeal due to air on BBC Radio 4 was postponed in light of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The charity had concerns that the intended message that Circles are about the prevention of abuse "may not be heard as clearly as we want it to be".
"With other types of offenders we're much more used to the sense of reform," says Francis.
"I think public consciousness ends once someone goes to jail. My interest is always what's going to happen in 25 years when they get out."
James, who remains on the sex offenders register although he has now finished his licence period, admits that without Circles he may not have been able to cope with the challenges of rebuilding his life.
Bullied as a child and admitting to having other deeply "repressed" feelings, his lack of emotional coping strategies was among a combination of factors that led him to offend. In 2007 he was convicted of numerous counts of downloading abusive images of children and one count of attempting to arrange a sex offence with a minor over the internet.
"I think it's partly genetic, thinking about my family, but I would always withdraw into myself rather than express what I was feeling," says James.
"Obviously my being arrested and incarcerated changed everything."
James had researched Circles himself, so when it was suggested by his probation officer he leapt at the chance to join.
But Circles is not designed to be a quick way out of the criminal justice system.
Through a combination of "encouragement and gentle nagging", James was supported in his search for a job, housing and encouraged to socialise more. His Circle also helped him open up to his parents, with whom his relationship is now "better than it's ever been".