Sentencing Circles

This page is archived material and is no longer updated. It may contain outdated information and broken links. The material presented on these pages is the product of five regional symposia held on restorative justice between June 1997 and January 1998.

A sentencing circle is a community-directed process, conducted in partnership with the criminal justice system, to develop consensus on an appropriate sentencing plan that addresses the concerns of all interested parties. Sentencing circles - sometimes called peacemaking circles - use traditional circle ritual and structure to involve the victim, victim supporters, the offender, offender supporters, judge and court personnel, prosecutor, defense counsel, police, and all interested community members. Within the circle, people can speak from the heart in a shared search for understanding of the event, and together identify the steps necessary to assist in healing all affected parties and prevent future crimes.

Sentencing circles typically involve a multi-step procedure that includes: (1) application by the offender to participate in the circle process; (2) a healing circle for the victim; (3) a healing circle for the offender; (4) a sentencing circle to develop consensus on the elements of a sentencing plan; and (5) follow-up circles to monitor the progress of the offender. The sentencing plan may incorporate commitments by the system, community, and family members, as well as by the offender. Sentencing circles are used for adult and juvenile offenders with a variety of offenses and have been used in both rural and urban settings. Specifics of the circle process vary from community to community and are designed locally to fit community needs and culture.

Sentencing circles have been developed most extensively in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Yukon and have been used occasionally in several other communities. Their use spread to the United States in 1996 when a pilot project was initiated in Minnesota.

Goals

The goals of sentencing circles include:

  • Promote healing for all affected parties.
  • Provide an opportunity for the offender to make amends.
  • Empower victims, community members, families, and offenders by giving them a voice and a shared responsibility in finding constructive resolutions.
  • Address the underlying causes of criminal behavior.
  • Build a sense of community and its capacity for resolving conflict.
  • Promote and share community values.

Implementation

A successful sentencing circle process depends upon a healthy partnership between the formal justice system and the community. Participants from both need training and skill building in the circle process, peacemaking, and consensus building. The community can subsequently customize the circle process to fit local resources and culture. It is critically important that the community's planning process allows sufficient time for strong relationships among justice professionals and community members to develop. Implementation procedures must be highly flexible, because the circle process will evolve over time based on the community's knowledge and experience.

In many communities, direction and leadership are provided by a community justice committee that decides which cases to accept, develops support groups for the victim and offender, and helps to conduct circles. In most communities, circles are facilitated by a trained community member, who is often called a "keeper."

Sentencing circles are not appropriate for all offenders. The connection of the offender to the community, the sincerity and nature of the offender's efforts to be healed, the input of victims, and the dedication of the offender's support group are key factors in determining whether a case is appropriate for the circle process. Because communities vary in health and in their capacity to deal constructively with conflict, representatives of the formal justice system must participate in circles to ensure fair treatment of both victims and offenders.

The capacity of the circle to advance solutions capable of improving the lives of participants and the overall well-being of the community depends upon the effectiveness of the participating volunteers. To ensure a cadre of capable volunteers, the program should support a paid community-based volunteer coordinator to supply logistical support, establish linkages with other agencies and community representatives, and provide appropriate training for all staff.

Lessons Learned

Very little research has been conducted to date on the effectiveness of sentencing circles. One study conducted by Judge Barry Stuart (1996) in Canada indicated that fewer offenders who had gone through the circle recidivated than offenders who were processed by standard criminal justice practices. Those who have been involved with circles report that circles empower participants to resolve conflict in a manner that shares responsibility for outcomes; generate constructive relationships; enhance respect and understanding among all involved; and foster enduring, innovative solutions.

For a more complete discussion of sentencing circles, see Building Community Justice Partnerships: Community Peacemaking Circles, by Barry Stuart, available from Aboriginal Justice Section, Department of Justice of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, K1AOH8; Fax - (613-957-4697, Attn. Learning Network).

Date Created: December 5, 2007