While the restorative justice movement has risen in recent years, the idea of circle sentencing, or peacemaking circles has been practiced in indigenous cultures for quite some time. As we look at implementing traditional indigenous culture practices as alternative dispute resolutions, we need to realize the effectiveness and also whether we are ready to use them. The Yukon and other communities reintroduced circles in 1991 as a practice of the restorative justice movement (Bazemore, 1997, p.27). Around that same time, Minnesota made the breakthrough in borrowing the practices with each band of Native Americans having their own political communications. Because Minnesota has seven Anishinaabe tribes and four Dakota communities, it has been one of the first states to lead the way for this new program. A circle sentencing program has also been implemented in North Minneapolis for African-American juvenile problems (Ulrich, 1999, p. 425).
Throughout this paper, criticisms and praises will be mentioned in the borrowing of these ingenious practices, along with arriving to a conclusion of whether we are ready to deal with offenders in the restorative justice aspect. This is an important issue because, with a newly arrived program, we need to realize whether or not we are rushing into something that the criminal justice system is not ready for and also whether they are effective.
What exactly are circles?
The text describes peacemaking circles as, a process that is used to resolve problems, build better relationships, or just flat out prevent these matters from occurring (Bazemore & Schiff, 2000, p. 219). Circles can be further explained as a process concerned with the victim, their rights, and hearing their story and acting upon it. The most important act is the victim telling their story, for the benefit of the community, offender, and the victim (Bazemore, 1997,p. 33).
In the process of circles the setting is very relaxed, it taking place wherever the group wants. They do have the members of most courtrooms with a judge, probation officer, court recorder, and community members along with the victim and their family. Since the processes are so community orientated, the actual process of the circle will vary (Roberts, 1996, p.70.) During traditional settings, prayer at the beginning of the sentence will occur, along with some sort of sacred object, which is usually a feather that members pass to one another as a talking stick. This gives the person holding the feather the power to say what they feel, and give the process a sense of organization, and most importantly, it prevents one-on-one confrontations (Ulrich, 1999, p.425).
What problems occur with the implementation of aboriginal circles?
When looking at the current criminal justice system in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, it is clear that it has failed in the treatment of aboriginal people. This problem has strengthened the idea of restorative justice as a replacement of the traditional system. When looking at implementing circles into that realm of restorative justice, there needs to be an agreement that their practices are diverse, and therefore not to force the issue. Many traditional practices are very spiritually based, and it needs to be evident that the process of healing is not distorted over this change. In most situations, the idea of creating a community will be the goal rather then reintegration. An example of this was given in a probation officer feeling the sentence of 18 months in prison, was too little from the group. The key that they were looking at was at the idea of healing, and not so much in punishment (Roach, 2000, p.263).
We then have to look at the despairing differences between practices of tradition and our American proceedings. The key is that Native Americans do not fare worse in these processes based on the matter at hand being borrowed and used under our current system. Research has shown that minorities do fare less often under alternative dispute resolution, including peacemaking circles. So when borrowing these practices, people need to make sure that the protection of rights is issued (Ulrich, 1999, p.429-430).
Bazemore, (2000, p.279) stated the fact that another problem that can arise with circles and the restorative justice movement was in reintegration. He stated that in some cases reintegration will be attempted, but many offenders were never given the chance to become integrated in the first place. In his example he used juveniles, but I also feel that it can be connected to all offenders.
What is the purpose of peacemaking circles and are they effective?
The idea of borrowing tribal methods and using them in non-tribal communities has received praise for various reasons. Support has been given because the process fosters responsibility of the offender towards the victim, along with this support towards the both of them. Circles have also resulted in the increase of safety felt by the victim along with lowering of recidivism rates (Ulrich, 1999, p. 432). When we discuss the effectiveness of sentencing circles, it’s clear that it’s discussed in the terms of restorative justice. The goals that include victims’ rights, restoration, and satisfaction of the victim, will be met differently in each individual case. When looking at its effectiveness the clear goal is to improve on the current criminal model of punishment (LaPrairie, 1995, p.86). One of the most important purposes behind sentencing circles regards the reduction of recidivism rates. Judge Stuart from the Yukon project in Canada has dealt with over 400 circle sentences of aboriginal and mixed clients. He concluded that 50% of the offenders have re-offended. Unfortunately, with circles being a family and community based program, the idea of an in depth study of the effectiveness of circles has not been successfully accomplished (Roberts, 1996, p.72-73).
In theory, with circles aimed at making an amends for what events have occurred in the past, effectiveness may be a different feeling, or action for different clients. The assumption is that circles, and other alternative restorative justice models are aimed at improving the current system. So when looking at effectiveness, we need to recognize whether or not these programs are meeting their objectives (LaPrairie, 1995,p.86). In many cases the outcome of these objectives will result in the key term of satisfaction and fairness. These have directly related to the victims and how they feel after a meeting has taken place. Some examples may include whether the restitution was fair, along with whether the result of the circle was fair and helpful (Bazemore & Schiff, 2000, p47-48).
Are Americans ready to implement aboriginal circles into our society?
When looking at borrowing the peacemaking circles program, the idea between traditional native practices and non-native practices that is problematic is the goals that they try to achieve. With our borrowing of circles, we look at it as an opportunity to restore the community as a whole in the sense of healing. In the traditional practices, they look at it as balancing their tribe through ritual involving a supernatural force. Aboriginal practices look at peace between the community and the family through these supernatural forces. In the restorative justice effort, the circles need to be looked as a larger sense of continuing after the mediation process (Ulrich, 1999, p.430-431). In this new justice of implying, empowerment, healing, and participation, the result has been justice being everyone’s business. In this case, the offenses and problems have been dealt in a more structured manner with the offenders, victims, and the community all helping (LaPrairie, 1995,p.528).
A potential downfall of our current system in the future in implementing circles may be anticipated by the past unsuccessfulness in Canada. The praises have been high about the “new” restorative movement, but a recent study done of the Hollow Water Community Holistic Circle Healing program has showed not so. The findings concluded that 72% of offenders, and only 28% of victims found circles to be a good experience. Also it was found that only 34% of participants felt that the community was supportive of them after the program took place (LaPrairie, 1998,p.69). This study has shown that the “new” wave may not be as effective, or successful as our traditional justice system.
Bazemore, G. (1997). Conferences, circles, boards, and mediations: The “new wave” of community justice decisionmaking. Federal Probation, 61 (2), 25-48.
Bazemore, G. & Schiff, M. (2000). Restorative Community Justice. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co. 219-221, 279.
LaPrairie, C. (1995). Community justice or just communities? Aboriginal communities in search of justice. Canadian Journal of Criminology. 37 (4), 521-535.
LaPrairie, C. (1998). The new justice: Some implications for aboriginal communities. Canadian Journal of Criminology. 40 (1), 61-79.
Roach, K. (2000). Changing punishment at the turn of the century: Restorative justice on the rise. Canadian Journal of Criminology. 42, (2), 249-280.
Ulrich, G. (1999). Widening the circle: Adapting traditional Indian dispute resolution methods to implement alternative dispute resolution and restorative justice in modern communities. Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy. 20, (2), 419-452.