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April 2, 2007

Restorative justice and sentencing circles

This Boston Globe op-ed discusses a distinct way to deal with wrongdoing and family strife that seeks to thwart future criminality:

At Roca Inc., a youth agency, "peacemaking circles" are being used to resolve disputes within a family and to provide alternative forms of sentencing for criminal defendants. "As an alternative sentencing process, the defendant has to plead guilty and must be sincerely committed to personal accountability and to real change," says Saroeum Phoung, coordinator for special projects at Roca. "That type of change is not what traditional sentencing demands of the defendant."

When used in alternative sentencing, a peacemaking circle includes the victim of a crime, the defendant, and families or supporters of both.  Also present are police, court authorities, and other agencies -- such as child welfare agencies -- with an interest in the life of either the victim or the perpetrator.  All may be heard.  Still, the circle honors the victim especially, who can participate in a more comprehensive way than in a criminal court proceeding. In an alternative sentencing circle, all participants must come to a consensus on the punishment of the offender, within the law.  "That doesn't mean that jail time is off the table," Phoung adds.  The group, including the defendant, might still decide there is no remedy other than prison.

Peacemaking circles are part of a nationwide movement toward restorative justice, which is based on the idea that an offense to any individual is something that impacts the whole community.  The goal of the circles, based on an aboriginal system of justice taught to Roca by the Tagish Tlingit people from Canada's Yukon Territory, is to restore the community, to make it well again.  "This is not about being soft on crime," says Phoung. "Many who have participated say that jail time is easier than the real accountability in facing the people you've hurt, the community you've done harm to, or even yourself."

I would be interested to hear from any readers with direct experience with sentencing or peacemaking circles. 

April 2, 2007 at 09:26 AM | Permalink


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I've got a post on a Zen Buddhist approach to restorative justice in Maine at http://www.sexcrimedefender.com/2007/03/zen_buddhism_an.html

Posted by: Steve Smith | Apr 2, 2007 10:47:07 AM

It is an interesting approach, that can be very time intensive. Judges in Alaska have been trained in their use (in large part, by people from Canada who use circles regularly), and some use them periodically.

Teri Carns, Aalska Judicial Council

Posted by: Teri Carns | Apr 2, 2007 1:38:58 PM

yes, there have been a few sentencing circles here in Alaska. The Anchorage daily news should have some articles in its archives about it. If my memory is correct, State District Court Judge Peter Ashman used one that made the papers.

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