Article about Circle of justice
Several Minnesota communities are reviving an Indian
custom to help break the cycle of crime. Volunteers
help sentence offenders and then help them lead better lives.
August 18, 1998 Page A1 of the Minneapolis Star Tribune
by Jim Adams, Staff Writer
Communities from Hastings in Dakota County to Whitehorse in Canada's
Yukon Territory are digging deep into the past to find a remedy to
recurring criminal behavior that our justice system can't seem to fix.
Faced with persistent crimes ranging from drug dealing to vandalism,
the communities are pioneering a return to ancient tribal customs that
bring people together to unearth the root causes of misconduct.
It's called circle sentencing. It begins with an offender pleading
guilty in court and agreeing to accept a community-imposed sentence.
Opening with a prayerful appeal to seek the common good, victims,
offenders and their supporters gather in a circle with other interested
community members to discuss the crime's impact. Once they choose a
sentence, circle members stay involved with - even mentor - the
offender to ensure compliance.
Experts say Minnesota is the first state in the nation to use
circle sentencing. Its goals include making the community safer,
satisfying victims' needs and giving offenders skills to escape the
cycle of crime and punishment.
Tonight, Hastings will become the latest of a handful of cities to
try circles. Community members will decide the fate of six high school
students involved in detonating a homemade bomb at a vice principal's
front door. The students have pleaded guilty to arson and property
Up to 70 people, including a judge, are expected for a circle that
could last more than four hours. If the circle can't reach a consensus,
the judge will decide the sentence.
Circle sentencing uses crime ``as an opportunity to strengthen the
community, to reweave the community fabric,'' said Kay Pranis, a
restorative justice planner for the state Department of Corrections.
The Mille Lacs Indian Reservation was the first place in Minnesota to
try the technique almost two years ago when it started doing circles
for nonviolent, adult, misdemeanor offenders.
At first, Mille Lacs County Attorney Jennifer Fahey was skeptical,
especially because defense attorneys liked the idea.
``I wanted to make sure offenders were going to be held accountable
by the community,'' she said. ``I was concerned that maybe friends or
family members would tend to excuse certain behaviors. I found it is
not that way at all.''
Circle members make frequent checks on offenders and help them stay
sober, get treatment and find jobs.
``In the criminal justice system, all we can do is punish,'' Fahey
said. ``Community members often teach them a trade or go to AA
[Alcoholics Anonymous] with them or are available 24 hours a day for
them to call. The success is what keeps me supportive.''
Now the nearby cities of Milaca and Princeton have started using
circle sentencing, Fahey said, and circles also are handling juvenile
cases, including some assaults.
Victims have a say
The power behind the circle is that it returns power to those most
affected by the crime, said Mark Umbreit, director of the Center for
Restorative Justice and Mediation at the University of Minnesota.
The circle is ``a safe, if not sacred, place where people feel
comfortable enough to open up and talk about what happened, the
emotional impact, ask questions and show concern for the offender and
his family,'' he said. ``It focuses not just on problem solving but . .
. healing for all.''
Upon entering the circle, everyone is supposed to leave their title
at the door and treat each other with equal respect. Some circles set a
spiritual tone with an opening appeal to God or other higher power to
help circle members realize their connectedness and devise a sentence
that meets everyone's needs.
Sentences can include restitution, community service, apologies and,
as a last resort, jail time.
``It demands real behavior change, not just sitting in a cell and
watching TV,'' Umbreit said. ``They have to do something. It is far too
respectful of offenders for many conservatives and too demanding of
accountability for traditional liberals.''
Jeremy Boyd, 24, an Ojibwe on the Mille Lacs reservation, said he
opted for circle sentencing to avoid jail after pleading guilty to
cruelty to animals. He said he strangled his older sister's cat after
getting mad at her.
As in the Hastings case, Boyd had a ``healing'' circle with the
victim before the sentencing.
``I felt kind of embarrassed for a while,'' Boyd said. ``I had to
open up and talk about it . . . All my sister wanted was an apology. I
wanted to, but it was hard to do.''
It took Boyd about 18 months to complete his sentence. He said he
built and installed 14 geese nesting boxes on Lake Mille Lacs, attended
an anger support group and fasted. A month ago, the charges were
dropped. Boyd, who leads work crews of juvenile delinquents, now
participates in circles for other offenders.
Circles dig deep
Circles delve deeper into underlying offender issues than earlier
forms of restorative justice, such as mediators working out restitution
deals between victims and offenders, which has been done in Minnesota
since about 1980.
Family conferencing came next and includes parents or other
supporters on each side. A family conferencing program led by Anoka
police has handled 162 cases over almost four years. Of 262 juveniles
involved, only six have reoffended in Anoka, said Chief Andrew
Many of these older programs involve juveniles diverted from court or
cases in which a judge decides most of the issues but orders the
offender to meet with the victim to decide restitution.
Sentencing circles include more people from the community, look at
issues beyond the offense and offer more resources to offenders and
But the key difference between sentencing circles and other forms
of restorative justice is that the judge and prosecutor share their
power to sentence. That means everyone agrees to live with the
decision, even if they don't like it, said Terry Anfinson, head of the
Anishinabe Opportunities Industrialization Center, which arranges
circles on the Mille Lacs reservation. If people can't agree, the judge
decides, but that hasn't happened in Minnesota.
The concept was first revived about 1990 among First Nation Indians
in the Yukon Territory with court cooperation. Tribe members and
territorial Judge Barry Stuart trained Minnesotans, including some from
north Minneapolis who have used circles in the past year to help
reunite families in cases of child abuse and neglect.
On the Mille Lacs reservation, circles have been held for about 10
offenders so far, three of whom failed to complete their sentences and
were sent back to court. Washington County has chosen four cases for
sentencing circles, one of which was terminated because the offender
Local and national experts say Massachusetts is the only other state
preparing to try circle sentencing.
Volunteers make it work
Circles depend on developing a corps of volunteers in the community
to shepherd the process, which can take as long or longer than the
``We are trying to change the person instead of [just] stop the
behavior,'' Anfinson said. ``You have to work with them over a long
period of time. We do get burned out and need to take some time off
after a while because it is a very emotional process.''
The volunteers act as ``circle keepers,'' maintaining order at the
sessions by passing a flat stone or other object around the circle,
which allows only the holder to speak. Other volunteers serve on local
committees to review applications for the circles and represent
community interests during sentencing.
Washington County has trained about 45 volunteers, including Mary
Louis Menikheim. She views the circles as an opportunity to unite
people isolated by our mobile society.
``It is bringing us back together as people who are connected with
some common purposes and values,'' Menikheim said. ``We're not
magicians who can change people's lives, but we can be supportive and
walk with them . . . The long-term impact is the greater relationships
we are building.''
How it works
Circle sentencing first was revived in Canada's Yukon Territory and
has spread to Minnesota. Places using it include the Mille Lacs Indian
Reservation, Milaca, Princeton, Minneapolis, Woodbury, Lake Elmo and
Hastings. The process can be adapted to community needs but usually
involves five basic steps:
1. Offender pleads guilty in court and agrees to accept sentence
imposed by circle of community members. Offender applies to a community
2. If accepted, the offender and committee work out a ``social
compact'' listing things the offender will begin doing immediately to
show his or her sincerity.
3. A trained facilitator meets with victim, offender and others to
explain the circle process. The facilitator may arrange smaller
``healing circles'' for victims and offenders as a start.
4. The facilitator convenes a larger sentencing circle that includes
interested community members and people from the court system. After
one or more meetings, the circle reaches a consensus on the sentence,
which can include some of the steps the offender has already taken. If
anyone in the circle can't agree, a judge decides the sentence.
5. The offender regularly returns to the circle to discuss his or
her progress. Circle members, especially his supporters, help him get
training, counseling or other assistance needed to fulfill his sentence
and become a productive person. If the circle becomes convinced that
the offender won't complete the sentence, he or she is sent back to
court for traditional sanctions.
Here are a few examples of offenders accepted for circle sentencing:
- Four young adults went on a mail-box-bombing and window-breaking
spree in the Lake Elmo area last year. All four were accepted for
circle sentencing, but one dropped out and was sent back to court.
Washington County District Judge Gary Schurrer was among 25 people in
the sentencing circle last December. They decided that the three men
would pay more than $1,000 in restitution and each do more than 100
hours of community service over two years. The offenders have written
apologies to 29 victims in Woodbury, Afton and Lake Elmo, and several
offenders have spoken at local schools about the effect of vandalism.
- A Mille Lacs reservation woman pleaded guilty to shoplifting in
Anoka. She has had healing circles and agreed to a set of conditions.
The offender, in her 40s, recently found her first job as a gas station
clerk. Her circle sentencing will be held soon in Anoka with Anoka
County District Judge Donald Venne attending.
- A 17-year-old reservation boy who assaulted an officer and had
drinking problems agreed on conditions but repeatedly failed to live up
to them. He was returned to court, where a judge sentenced him to the
Sauk Centre juvenile facility for a year.
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