Circle Sentencing




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