Justice: Circle, Restorative, Transformative

This page, “Justice: Circle, Restorative, Transformative” is meant to  promote justice models that intend healing – healing victim wounding; healing perpetrator’s need to inflict harm; and in the process, more widely, to heal human community.

This page has 3 ‘sections’.  1stRelevant posts, this blog (links) and  General Research Links – I add these as I find them. They are  of organizations, activity, reports, etc. currently using and exploring healing justice models; 2ndBrief note defining Circle Justice, and our heritage of it from North American tribal practices; 3rd –  My personal thoughts on Circle Justice as evidence of human potential for compassionate justice, and on the deeper humanity available to us through Circle Justice practices compared to our crime/punishment and jury system(Note: Due to rising interest in a ‘new’ variation, Transformative Justice, this page again needs reorganization. I’d like to provide more on Transformative Justice.  In meantime, see note next for link to post on Transformative Justice.)

Most relevant Posts, this blog:

Zimmerman Trial – What of the Restorative Justice Process

Notes on the Potential of Transformative Justice

General Research Link  – New healing justice model; July 2013 – Transformative Justice: a new 21stC healing Justice Model, “Transformative Justice”.  For now – please see blog post for information and some excellent new links: “Notes on the Potential of Transformative Justice“.

General Research Link: 9May2011: Restorative Justice (UK). “We are the national voice for restorative practice, advocating for the development of restorative practice with Government and providing information to the public through our website and media work. Working with all our members and partner organisations, we bring the field together, and through our publications and events, share innovative practice and support the development of quality restorative practice.” (from the website ‘about the RJC’.)

General Research Link: 9May2011: Study Guide for novel  Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelesen, published 2001. Browser search by book title gives many hits.  Here is a a full novel-study package (pdf). The study guide is thorough, chapter-by-chapter. It has a table of contents, and a forward written by Mikaelesen who describes writing “Touching Spirit Bear” to explore/present Circle Justice and healing.  The study guide “was produced by the Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan (PLEA). PLEA is a non-profit, non-government organization funded by the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan and the Department of Justice Canada. …” Study guide is freely offered for strictly non-commercial use.

General Research Link
: 20April2011: Today I posted a blog article on South Africa’s current affairs (Malema ‘hate language’ trial). I’ve ‘argued’ for ‘seeing’ that trial ‘issues’ are a good fit for the wisdom of South Africa’s  remarkable initiative and success with its 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission,  Research on Circle and Restorative justice may want to explore the Commission’s development and process. It was, and remains,  perhaps the only example of an entire nation ‘processing’ its wounds by a restorative justice concept.

General Research Link
: 9Feb2011: Found this link today after hearing a report on current restorative justice practices in Britain:  (Some BBC links are time-sensitive for re-play. This general BBC search page should have available programs.)

General Research Link: 1Feb2011: A friend and one-time colleague, very involved with justice reforms, justice practices, uses “Circle” as one defined practice among a larger set of possibilities found under the label “restorative justice”.  Restorative justice goals, teachings, and practices very much match outcomes sought by Circle Justice.  A quick browser search for ‘restorative justice’ bring promising hits.  One (I’ve not explored it) is RestorativeJustice.Org.

General Research Link: 10Jan2011: I’ve not checked this out but bookmarked it as a possible rich resource on Circle Justice – historically, and as the concept may be brought into our own time: Tribal Law Journal, University of New Mexico.


Note: Sections 2 and 3, below, are specific to Circle Justice, draw on my limited experience, web findings, and hopefully encourage enthusiasm of others.


The following description of Circle Justice is offered in a very brief Wikipedia entering for “Justice Circle”.  I first heard this process called “Justice Circle”. Most of the ‘hits’ showing up on my internet browser use “Circle Justice”.  I have followed suit in this post. The author who posted the Wikipedia description does not say Circle Justice remains a known, and practiced, approach to Justice in Canada, but I can assure you it does. It was while living and teaching in Canada that I first came across it.

“Circle Justice is a Native American form of justice, originating in Canada that seeks healing contrary to the regular punishment ways and is portrayed in Ben Mikaelsen’s novel “Touching Spirit Bear”. It is mostly practiced in Minnesota and some other Midwestern states. Volunteers help sentence offenders and then help them lead better lives.” (Wikipedia)


Section 3 – A Few Links, and My Thoughts on CIRCLE JUSTICE

Importance of Circle Justice to me:

Circle Justice is my ‘touchstone’ healing justice process.  Its concepts underlie late 20th and early 21st century systems known as Restorative, or Transformative. It’s important to appreciate that Circle Justice demonstrates many insights of late 20thC psychology on human individual and community need – yet it originated long before psychology existed as a social science. And, to my knowledge, most ‘more advanced’ cultures had no comparable practices. They were inclined to throw offenders into poor houses, or into jails, or hang them, or worse. And if any children were cast adrift by these punishments to parents, only luck might save them. These societies often aggressively pursued some form of “industry” in the name of “progress”. There was little time or patience with “healing social wounds” as remedy when harm occurred.

It was not until the latter half of the 20thC that “talk as therapy”, (talk as a path to healing), found its way to individual and group healing in ‘western’ cultures – even then, use of talk to heal  violent or other harms against another or others was unknown, unimagined.

Circle Justice stands for me as evidence – proof – that we humans have always had innate, inborn, wisdom available to use in social-related healing. We can choose to recognize this in ourselves. We can use it as guidance to develop policies and practices that best serve the individual, and the community.  I feel it’s our honor and privilege to discover and ‘exercise’ this wisdom.

Circle Justice Link: “Jess” has researched Circle Justice, gives good description, considers likelihood of success in her Maine community, and cites research sources at her blog here. She states: “The goals of Circle Justice include making the community safer, satisfying the needs of the victims’ and giving the offender skills to avoid crime. Minnesota was the first state to use the justice of circle sentencing.”  She gives several descriptions of Circle Justice in actual use. (At the time of her post, Maine did appear to have communities using Circle Justice.)

Circle Justice Link: An article offering description and practice in Minnesota, by Jim Adams, Staff Writer, (August 18, 1998, Page A1, Minneapolis Star Tribune), is unfortunately no longer available. When I accessed the article several years ago, I pulled this excerpt from his article, (underlines and bold are mine):
“It’s called circle sentencing. It begins with an offender pleading guilty in court and agreeing to accept a community-imposed sentence. Opening with a prayerful appeal to seek the common good, victims, offenders and their supporters gather in a circle with other interested community members to discuss the crime’s impact. Once they choose a sentence, circle members stay involved with – even mentor – the offender to ensure compliance.” 

Note on the Minnesota link: today, (July, 2013), I followed leads offered at the ‘no longer avail’ Tribune article link, which took me to Circles Minnesota, Circles Peace-Making process. The Circles Minnesota link also may have ‘age’ issues (page references ‘news letter subscription’ from some time back) but also gives links that merit checking (too many for me to follow at this writing).

More of my thoughts on Circle Justice – including generalized comparisons to our more conventional system (trials, juries, etc.)

Circle Justice intentionally relies on “ordinary” community citizen involvement, (and certainly can include professionals with training in social, personal development or matters of justice). By drawing on community members as the primary resource, the Justice Circle demonstrates confidence and belief in “ordinary citizen” capacity for both Justice and Compassion. Punishment is intended to include reparation and some level of faith, of confidence ,in the offender as “worth of becoming a valued, contributing, citizen to the community.

Our jury system also importantly recognizes citizen wisdom in ‘judgment by peer’. A clear difference between the standard jury approach, and a “citizen circle” approach which may include any number of community members, is primarily seen in the larger descriptions of how Circle Justice works. Circle Justice has far more
potential for the offender to experience “People actually care – not only about me being ‘bad’, but about me being the best I can be in our community.”

One does not need to spend a great many years studying psychology to grasp that
all manner of influences in early years, along with perhaps some along the way, fundamentally “shape” individual development. In fact, early forays into study of psychology make this clear. This ‘reality’ for human development is perhaps the very first “lesson” we pick up when we first study psychology!

Levels of personal confidence, personal capacity to trust (oneself and others), personal opportunity and encouragement to enjoy developing ones talents — all these required for an individual to become “the best she/he can become”. All are affected, often for a life-time, in the formative years.

There is profound, almost night and day, difference in the operating paradigms of the two systems
: conventional court with peer jury, followed by probation and/or prison terms (mixed results with both these to support change for an offender); and Circle Justice with wider spread community involvement and community unpaid community members agreeing to sponsor, or mentor, an offender.

court procedure organizes seating by hierarchy and only allows those with ‘formal permission’ to speak. Justice Circles seat everyone in a circle, no hierarchy. Circle members speak one at a time, use of a talking stick of some kind is employed to assure this. Victims speak, describing what the offense has meant to them; offender/s speak offering whatever it is they find they can say to explain and/or express regret; community members speak. The entire group agrees what will be followed as repair for the offense, and repair of the offender’s habits. I believe also advocates and support are allowed for those with something to say but who may be insecure about speaking.

Standard court procedure, regardless of intentions present at its early development, has become a system inclined to “lock offenders away”, to express fear, or disgust. It demonstrates lack of essential confidence in the individual.
Incarceration for many ‘lower impact’ crimes is costly in dollars, creates social pools of mis-guided individuals, and struggles to offer offenders opportunity to step away from the life patterns that led to their crime.

Circle Justice focuses on “the act” not “the actor”, a chosen behavior, not the entire personality of the behaver. It does not emphasize an “us/them” view
of “perpetrator/victim”, does not overly contrast ‘contributing’ community members to “the disruptive member”. (It recognizes what we all find true. Someone who hurts or harms others may at other times demonstrate genuine concern and care to others.) The idea is to coach away from the first (doing harm) toward the second (demonstrating concern and care.) The paradigm that such coaching might work is what Adler meant by the need to feel, as well as demonstrate, confidence toward ourselves and others as individuals who make up humanity. By keeping more people in their social, community roles, by justice systems that allow breadwinners to remain breadwinners, by keeping more offenders out of jails and prisons, Circle Justice cannot possibly have so many collateral and externalized dollar costs!

I do not argue Circle Justice can replace all present forms of justice, at every turn. I firmly believe, however, that it might be much more widely practiced.

Circle Justice has been explored for several decades, (setting aside the fact that prior to European arrival it was already present!) Bits and pieces of its philosophy have found their way into conventional court outcomes, (electronic bracelets allow individuals to be monitored without actually being in jail; ‘community service’ sentencing hopes to introduce, or re-introduce an offender to the positive experience of contributing.

My browser returned 16,700,000 ‘hits’ to ‘justice circle’. There is much available. There are, aside from Circle Justice, other movements afoot in Justice explorations: Restorative Justice, Sentencing Circles, Transformative Justice, …. I post this article as a sub-page under “Our 21st Century”, because I want to draw attention to this process. My deepest thanks and gratitude to those exploring all such approaches.

From my point of view: Circle Justice  and other healing justice approaches described as Restorative Justice,  and also Transformative Justice –  hit most, if not all, practices I believe we need to shift toward. These practices blend Justice with Compassion.

They seek justice within a paradigm that fundamentally, without argument, asserts and accepts worth and value of each and every individual, worth and value of all life.

My Best – MaggieAnn


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s