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March 17, 2012

Alaska's interesting experiences with circle sentencing

This interesting new AP piece, headlined "Alaska courts taking new approach to rural justice," reports on a state's willingness to keep trying a non-traditional sentencing process in the hope of achieving better outcomes for all involved.  Here are the details:

Alaska Magistrate Mike Jackson of Kake first heard of "circle sentencing" in the mid-1990s, when alcohol-related problems in his village were burgeoning.  Kake had higher rates of accidental deaths, child abuse and suicides than just about anywhere in the state.

The idea of forming circles, Jackson learned, was for a moderator to bring together family, friends and others who know a victim or offender to help a judge hand down a fair sentence by considering local history, community beliefs and other views of a defendant's background.  It was used after a guilty plea or a conviction.

He tried out the idea in 1999 with a woman convicted of crimes related to her alcohol addiction.  She had previously refused in-patient treatment.  At the circle, state authorities told her it was her last chance before losing her kids, and her friends and family persuaded her to get help.

"She came back and was sober," said Dinah Aceveda, who helped organize that circle and 66 others since.  "She changed her life from that.  When you have good people around you in that circle, in that community, that's what can happen."

Circle sentencing is about to be used for the first time in a felony case in Alaska.  Jackson said the system recognizes Tlingit traditions and approaches to justice used since time immemorial in ways lost on state courts.  "What matters most under state court is punishment and control," said Jackson, who also is a tribal court leader.  "Determining guilt and punishment for the offender is the focus, but under circles it's holistic in views of the community and the victim."

In 2003, researchers from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University visited Kake and decided to honor the southeast Alaska community for its efforts at justice reform.  A report on the town said the circle's successes were occurring where the state court system had repeatedly failed....

[C]ircle justice most often involved cases related to domestic violence, child neglect and minors consuming alcohol, and has expanded little.  Concerns have been expressed about unequal punishments for similar crimes, with some worried that people will get off easy. There are specific cases when circles proved ineffective that serve as fodder for critics....

Galena Magistrate Christopher McLain has advocated bringing courts to rural communities and using circles when possible since he took the bench in 2008.  He said those familiar critiques miss the point.  Judges follow state sentencing guidelines and make the final decision when circles are used, McLain said. And at least as many examples of ineffective outcomes exist in state courts, he said.

"(Circles) let me take community recommendations and craft a sentence that's rehabilitative," he said. "But people don't get off easy.  Many times they end up with a harsher punishment, but the point is we realize that we need each other to survive out here, and we're going to have to live with each other after the punishment is over."

March 17, 2012 at 09:22 PM | Permalink


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Meanwhile, Down Under:

The New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics has analysed a program that brings young offenders face-to-face with victims of crime.

It says it makes no difference to the rate at which they go on to commit more crimes.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Mar 18, 2012 11:27:22 AM


It's a misunderstanding to see the primary purpose of 'circle sentencing' as reducing recidivism. Native American cultures are much more communal than the atomistic focus of European based cultures. As the judge makes clear, "the point is to realize that we need each other". When you're a white ex-con you can basically go where you want. A Native American ex-con is almost certainly going to go straight back to the community where the crime was committed. So the long-term dynamic is completely different.

Whether our legal system should reflect such different cultural dynamics is a debatable point. But I think that 'circle sentencing' is as much about cultural affirmation as it is about sentencing policy. Unless that is understood any evaluation of the program will go astray.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 18, 2012 12:04:18 PM

Kent --

I have the strong feeling that "circle sentencing" will remain popular just as long as it produces shorter sentences. If and when it produces longer sentences, it will be discovered to be an unacceptable throwback.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 18, 2012 3:24:04 PM

Daniel - I've practiced in Richmond, Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains. In both places, the ex-con, no matter his ethnicity, goes right back to the community where the crime was committed. The fact that it is his community draws him back. Mediated community sentencing like this may or may not work, but there is nothing unique about its applicability to one set of people over another.

Posted by: Ken | Mar 18, 2012 6:12:02 PM

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