Circles are found in the Native American cultures of the United States and Canada, and are used there for many purposes. Their adaptation to the criminal justice system developed in the 1980s as First Nations peoples of the Yukon and local justice officials attempted to build closer ties between the community and the formal justice system. In 1991, Judge Barry Stuart of the Yukon Territorial Court introduced the sentencing circle as a means of sharing the justice process with the community.
One of the best-known uses of the sentencing circle is the Hollow Water First Nations Community Holistic Healing Circle. Community members used circles to deal with the high level of alcoholism in Hollow Water. In the safety of those circles, many began to disclose experiences with sexual abuse. This led to development of healing circles as a way of dealing with the harm created by the offender, of healing the victim and of restoring the community.
Circles have been developed most extensively in the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. They are also occasionally used in other Canadian communities, and in the United States where Navajo peacemaking courts have also used circles. The initial US use of circles in mainstream criminal justice was in 1996 in Minnesota. The process is now used throughout North America and in other parts of the world for both juvenile and adult offenders and in a wide variety of offences and settings.
As with the restorative processes of mediation and conferencing, circles provide a space for encounter between the victim and the offender, but it moves beyond that to involve the community in the decision making process. Depending on the model being used, the community participants may range from justice system personnel to anyone in the community concerned about the crime. Everyone present, the victim, victim's family, the offender, offender's family, and community representatives are given a voice in the proceedings. Participants typically speak as they pass a "talking piece" around the circle.
The process is value driven. Primarily, it is designed to bring healing and understanding to the victim and the offender. Reinforcing this goal of healing is the empowerment of the community to be involved in deciding what is to be done in the particular case and to address underlying problems that may have led to the crime. In reaching these goals, the circle process builds on the values of respect, honesty, listening, truth, sharing, and others.
Participation in the circle is voluntary. The victim must agree to attend without any form of coercion. The offender accepts his/her guilt in the matter and agrees to be referred to the circle. Especially for the native communities, it is important for the offender to have deep roots in the community. Each circle is led by a "keeper", who directs the movement of the talking piece. Only the person holding the object is allowed to speak, ensuring that each person has an opportunity to be heard.
As the talking piece makes the rounds of the circle, the group discusses different topics. In addressing the crime, participants describe how they feel. For the offender, this includes why he/she committed the crime. For the victim and each of the community participants, the circle provides an opportunity to explain the impact the crime has economically, physically, and emotionally. Through this process of sharing the participants are able to develop a strategy for addressing the crime (i.e. restitution, or community service) and the causes of the crime.
Although circles vary by location and cultural adaptation, they can involve a multi-stage and complex process. In general, the offender must apply to go to a circle in the first stage. Several factors are considered important here such as willingness to change, stake in the community, and support system.
When a case is sent to the sentencing circle, both the offender and the victim are prepared. This is done by informing the victim and offender of what will occur in the circle, listening to the experiences of the victim and offender and informing them of who will be taking part in the circle.
In many places a series of circles will take place in resolving particular problems. After the offender applies to be sent to a circle, separate healing circles are held for the victim and offender. After the healing circles, a sentencing circle determines the kind of response expected of the offender, although it may also contain commitments by the justice, community, and family members involved. The final stage consists of circles of support that track the progress of the plan of action.
Few studies have been done on the effectiveness of sentencing circles and those have shown generally positive results. In the Minnesota study, respondents noted the stronger connectedness of people in the community as an important feature of the sentencing circle. For the most part, the process is seen as fair in that it allows each person to have a voice and to work together in finding a solution. Reservations related to the length of the process and the need for better preparation of participants. In general, the process has been viewed as a good way of building relationships and strengthening the community.
This document was prepared by Lynette Parker. Copyright Prison Fellowship International.