The process builds upon victim impact panels (VIP), a process in which victims and family of drunk driving accidents tell their stories to those caught drinking and driving. Often VIPs take place in a hall full of participants, with the victims telling their stories from a podium or stage. Kris Miner, director of SCVRJP since 2004, wanted to make the experience more intimate and meaningful. “We continued to call them panels at first,” she said, “but actually we ran them as restorative justice circles.”

Whether they address impaired driving, controlled substance abuse or underage drinking, the circles last about two hours. Each begins with an exercise in which people identify an important relationship in their lives and one thing about that relationship that is significant. Miner said, “I believe accountability happens within the context of relationships.” The exercise works as an icebreaker to help people in the circle get to know one another. It also grounds people by getting them to start off talking about a positive relationship in their lives.

The circle-keeper, a volunteer, then asks each of the participants to make a commitment to respect the circle process. After that, one of the volunteers – the storyteller – shares a story from their life experience. In an impaired-driving circle the story could be about someone hurt directly or indirectly by drunk driving. In a controlled-substance abuse circle, the volunteer storyteller might discuss their own struggles with substance abuse. Following this, the participants who have offended and the other community volunteers reflect to one another upon the story they’ve just heard. At the discretion of the circle-keeper, another go-around may allow people to discuss the reflections.

The action phase follows, during which the circle-keeper asks everyone to make a public commitment based on the circle topic. For underage consumption of alcohol, the commitment might be to reduce consumption, not drink and drive or to track the amount of alcohol one consumes. For a teen-driving circle the commitment might be to wear a seatbelt or not to text while driving. Participants can also reflect on what they’ve gained or learned from the circle experience.

Miner and SCVRJP have facilitated literally thousands of circles over the past 10 years. In a January 2014 report issued by SCVRJP, “Evidence, Outcomes & Performance: 10 Years of Restorative Justice,” Kris Miner detailed the re-offense rates by year for each type of circle. The numbers of participants who did not reoffend has ranged from 84 to 96 percent. (Read the report.)

One participant in an Underage Consumption Panel said afterwards, “The personal stories of the volunteers made the issues real. It put things into a larger perspective.” A participant in a Victim Empathy Panel commented, “I liked most of all that there was no judgment placed on anyone, and everyone got a chance to speak.”

Miner writes, “In a public forum in December 2011, Judge Cicero, River Falls Municipal Court Judge, shared that the program reduces ‘frequent flyers’ (repeat offenders) – in her courtroom. She viewed the program as a community solving it’s own problems.”

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