When Justice is the goal

Restorative Justice: Sentencing Circles

By Ann Estis, Justice 'n Rights Center, St. Paul, MN, Regional Leader of The November Coalition

"Restorative Justice is a philosophy which holds community healing as its cornerstone. Like community policing, it's a way of doing business differently. Unlike the current adversarial system which is based on punishment, restorative justice encourages dialogue and responsibility for past behaviour, while focusing on future problem-solving and offender accountability. Ideally, the victim, the offender and the community should be involved in 'making things right' to enable all parties to be returned to their pre-crime states. Restorative justice views crime as a violation of one person by another not simply as a breaking of the 'law'.

"The circle is a form of restorative justice, a concept that incorporates principles of ancient, aboriginal tribal justice that predates the U.S. Court system to address the harm crime brings to victims, offenders, the families and friends of both, and the community."

From Restorative Justice Net

"The Sentencing Circle concept originated in the Yukon Territory of Canada, and is based on ancient tribal traditions. Barry Stuart, a Yukon Circuit Judge, implemented it as an alternative to traditional incarceration. He was persuaded by a Yukon Indian tribe, who wanted to be allowed to determine the punishment for their own people. One of their first successes was with an Indian gentleman named Harold Gatensby, and now the two of them travel all over our country to set up Peacekeeping Circles. They are willing to go wherever they are asked. Recidivism rates, when justice is the goal, are very low.

"The circle has wider latitude than the courts in sentencing a defendant. It accepts only offenders that have pleaded guilty, and requires them to abide by a social contract that might include finishing school, getting a job, and helping family members. A sentence can also include remedies available to the courts - jail time and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse." - St. Paul Pioneer Press, Feb. 22, 1999

Let me tell you about our Community Peacekeeping-Sentencing Circle group. There are five to eight judges who attend, as well as several prosecuting attorneys, police officers and various police department heads. There are religious leaders of all denominations, parole and probation officers, social workers, city and private attorneys, a couple of councilmen, and the head of the human rights department. We also have in attendance the chief federal prosecutor, and several corrections officers as well.

These people are very dedicated and rarely if ever miss a meeting. We meet at least twice a month or more. We review drug offenses and other felonies; but are trying to maintain focus on drug felonies.

We started our circle last year, after an intensive 10-hour a day training. Those who attend come into a group where everyone is validated equally; we leave all titles outside the circle. Anyone can come to any session and be equally heard, or be an equal part of the decision making process. We are truly a very close-knit group, more like a family and share a lot of hugs, food and healing laughter. There is always a sense of spirituality to our meetings as well. Our groups are very informal, yet respectful and we share many wonderful experiences. We have over fifty people who are committed to bringing about change, and want to stop seeing productive human beings serving draconian prison sentences.

Judge Wilson is a local District Court Judge, and the gentleman who brought the idea to our city, Judge Cohen is also a St. Paul judge. Together they have worked hard to make this concept work. They are catching a lot of heat from the local criminal justice establishment, and to be truthful they have put their careers on the line.

I am the mother of a drug war prisoner. When I watched them carry my baby, my first-born away for 19-1/2 years last year, I thought I would die right in that federal courtroom. They didn't care that he was set up by a snitch, that he had lost 40 pounds from fear, or that he was too weak to walk. They didn't care that I was weak and exhausted and the court ignored all 34 family members, friends and community leaders who begged them to look at the inconsistent evidence presented. They didn't even flinch as my people had to pick me and other family members off the floor as we gave way to grief-grief at knowing there is no justice in our present system.

I cry for all the prisoners of the drug war, but when I wipe away the last tear, I pick myself up and get involved any way I can to bring our loved ones home. Knowing that I can act, and that our combined efforts are making a difference always makes me feel better. We can be the instruments of change.

  • Vision without action are just dreams.
  • Action without vision just passes time.
  • Vision with action can change the world!