Convicted rapists and paedophiles across the UK are being taken on ten-pin bowling and cinema trips in a taxpayer-funded scheme
The extraordinary soft-touch initiative means sex offenders who are freed early from prison are then escorted on recreational outings.
The scheme, known as Circles of Support and Accountability, is already running in England and is being offered to councils across Scotland after an initial trial in Fife.
As of July last year, there were 96 local programmes, known as ‘Circles’ – which consist of one offender and four to six volunteers – operating in England and Wales.
The annual average cost per circle is £9,800 and on average, this amounts to £295,500 across England and Wales (including the cost of volunteers) each year.
The scheme is based on the idea that ‘our neighbourhoods are not safer places when we reject or ignore those involved in sexual offending’.
Volunteers are recruited with the aim of ensuring that sex offenders are not ‘socially isolated’, as this can increase the chances of reoffending.
The mentors, who are supervised and trained at public expense, provide personal and practical support for the ‘lonely’ criminals, helping them to reintegrate into the community.
The scheme has run in England since 2002, and in 2008, Circles UK, a national body supporting the development, quality and effectiveness of the scheme in England and Wales was launched.
Between April 2008 and March 2010, the National Offender Management Service funded two pilot sites in Hampshire and the Thames Valley.
For these two pilots, the total annual cost of the programme (including the cost of volunteers) was £415,000.
But last night Scottish Tory chief whip John Lamont described the move to Scotland as a ‘slap in the face for victims’.
He said: ‘Perhaps if sex offenders such as these served their full term inside, it would allow the rehabilitation process to have more effect.
‘That would negate the need for these schemes which seem to be a soft-touch compensation for automatic early away days for sex offenders release.
‘This is a slap in the face for victims and their families who will not think this is the best use of taxpayers’ money, and it goes some way to reinforcing the impression the justice system spends more time catering for the needs of criminals than their victims.’
They ‘buy in’ the service at an average cost of £9,000 per offender. It is estimated that within five years around 100 sex criminals across Scotland will be participating in the initiative.
Paolo Mazzoncini, Sacro’s director of operations for the east of Scotland, said ‘social isolation and emotional loneliness’ have been shown to be ‘two factors which can increase the risk of reoffending’.
He said that in the scheme volunteers from the local community ‘form a circle’ around the offender – known as the ‘core member’ under its terminology – to provide a support network for the ‘personal and practical needs of the offender’.
Part of the volunteers’ job is to challenge the offender if they show ‘any signs of minimising their behaviour’ and to hold them accountable.
Mr Mazzoncini, on a YouTube video released in an attempt to reassure the public about the scheme, says: ‘Should circle members have cause for concern, they will report them to the authorities and they will be acted upon quickly and robustly.’
He stresses that the circles are not intended to replace statutory supervision of sex offenders by police and social workers.
One volunteer, known as Geoff, says on the video that the volunteers are there to ‘help society in general and try to ensure there are no more victims’.
Volunteers say the circle meetings can be ‘very light-hearted’ – and can even include a ‘trip down memory lane’ for the paedophile.
One of the sex offenders involved in the scheme says he was ‘lonely’ and had no friends, but the circle members gave him advice and helped to ‘keep him safe’.
He said the meetings were initially ‘a bit awkward’ but the volunteers helped him to ‘avoid risky situations’ and to develop greater confidence.
A source close to the scheme conceded that the recreational trips for sex offenders were an ‘emotive issue’ and the paedophiles could be escorted to the local library as well as to cinemas and bowling alleys, depending on their interests.
The insider said: ‘The idea is to provide support to them as they go about their normal daily lives.’
The sex offenders are expected to pay for their cinema tickets themselves, but the volunteers who accompany them have been trained and must be supervised at taxpayers’ expense.
The original idea is from Canada, where a survey by the country’s prison service found it reduced reoffending by 70 per cent.
Tom Halpin, Sacro’s chief executive, said: ‘Social isolation and emotional loneliness have been shown to be two key factors in increasing the risk of sexual reoffending.
‘Circles of Support and Accountability places a “circle” of highly-trained volunteers, supported by experienced professional staff, around an offender to monitor and support them with reintegration. It is not a replacement for existing public protection arrangements.
‘This is about keeping communities safe and making them safer, preventing people being harmed.
‘A circle is about working in partnership, assisting an offender to reintegrate into the community with the community as a resource.’
An initiative that sees normal members of the public socialising with the likes of convicted paedophiles and rapists is being run in Leeds for the first time. Crime reporter Sam Casey found out how Circles of Support and Accountability works.