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Peacemaking Circles

Also called Healing Circles, Circles of Understanding, Sentencing Circles or Circles

Circles have a wide array of uses and purposes both in and out of the juvenile justice system. They can be used as a practice in schools and communities for building relationships and changing community cultures as well as a community-directed process, conducted in partnership with the justice system, to develop consensus on an appropriate plan that addresses the concerns of all those affected by a crime. Circles use traditional circle ritual and structure to involve the victim, victim supporters, the offender, offender supporters, justice personnel, 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.

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 in several other communities. Their use spread to the United States in 1996 when a pilot project was initiated in Minnesota. In Illinois, circles are most often used in communities, schools and work places for conflict resolution and as a way of building relationships that create a peaceful safe place to study, work, and live as well as for victim-offender issues.

Goals

The goals of circles both in communities and in schools include:

  • Building relationships, creating a sense of community and its capacity for resolving conflict.
  • Addressing the underlying causes of criminal and/or inappropriate behavior.
  • Promoting and sharing community values.
  • Promoting healing for all affected parties of inappropriate behavior.
  • Providing an opportunity for the offender to make amends.
  • Empowering victims, community members, families, and offenders by giving them a voice and a shared responsibility in finding constructive resolutions.

Implementation

In schools, Peacemaking Circles develop an atmosphere where students can create their own safe environment in their classrooms for better learning and to learn conflict resolution skills. Circles are facilitated by a trained "keeper." Because communities vary in health and in their capacity to deal constructively with conflict, a sufficient amount of training must be completed before using circles as a way of resolving conflict. 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 and appropriate training of those participating.

Lessons Learned

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. In 2000, Coates, Umbreit, and Vos, did an evaluation of a circle process in South St. Paul Minnesota. Their findings determined that circles resulted in accountability, awareness and support from the community, and that the process was greatly recommended by victims and offenders, previously engaged in the process.

Practices