Sentencing Circles

In traditional court procedures, the accused is brought before a judge, possibly a jury, and legal counsel seeks to establish guilt or innocence and the appropriate remedy.

More recently, the victim or the victim's family has been allowed to offer "victim impact statements", describing the ways in which the crime has affected the individual and his or her relatives.

Traditional courts maintain distance and hierarchy. In a sentencing circle, the offender, his or her victims, the victim's family, peers, elders and other community members sit down together in a circle and work together to understand what has led to the crime and to negotiate appropriate redress. Rather than being purely punitive, the circle promotes healing.

Instead of removing the offender from the community and isolating him or her, the circle affirms the essential goodness of the offender, attempting to restore and re-build the offender, the victim, and the community to which they all belong.

Circles: It's about Justice. It's about Healing.

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[...] The sentencing circle is about “community building,” he says; it is about “healing” those affected by crime, and those who committed it. It is repairing relations; making victims and perpetrators “feel better” with the outcome of a criminal incident.

[...] “What social scientist in the last 100 years has said, ‘Gee, punishment changes behaviour’?” Mr. Stuart asks. Much better, he says, is for criminals to feel their community’s “love.”

[...] “If the judge were to effectively ignore the circle that would be sending a message that we don’t want your opinion on justice matters or that somehow punishment is more important than building community,”

[...] “There’s a basic philosophical question that has to be engaged before you even get involved in sentencing circles and that is what are your primary goals or objectives in sentencing,” says David Paciocco, a law professor at the university of Ottawa. “It all depends on your perspective on what we’re trying to accomplish when we sentence.” Sentencing circles appeal to those wanting primarily to reintegrate criminals into their offended community, he says. “If on the other hand you believe that sentencing is a principled exercise designed to express societal revulsion at criminal conduct, or if you believe that proportionality is the underlying consideration in sentencing, then you’re probably going to feel uncomfortable with a regime that’s designed to see how we can move forward rather than respond to what’s happened in the past.”

[...] Supporters of the circles say their strength is that the process reflects a more time-honoured form of justice; It is, Mr. Stuart points out, a community choosing to “roll up its sleeves” in the grandest traditions of civil society, to solve its own problems. “We’re living now in this la-la land where nobody really participates,” he says. “It’s all done by professionals . . . we’ve outsourced everything.”

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