Peacemaking circles use traditional circle ritual and structure to create a respectful space in which all interested community members — victim, victim supporters, offender, offender supporters, judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, police and court workers — can speak openly in a shared attempt to understand a crime, to identify what is needed to heal all affected parties and to prevent future occurrences. These circles are built on the tradition of talking circles, common among indigenous people of North America, in which an object called a talking piece is passed from person to person around a circle, structuring the dialogue.
Peacemaking circles are community directed processes that work in partnership with the criminal justice system. They typically involve a multi-step procedure including application by the offender to the circle process, a healing circle for the victim, a healing circle for the offender, a sentencing circle to develop consensus on the elements of a sentencing agreement and follow-up circles to monitor the progress of the offender. The sentencing plan may incorporate commitments by the system, community and family members as well as by the offender.
During circle gatherings, participants sit in a circle without tables or other furniture. Circles are facilitated by “keepers,” often trained community members, who are responsible for setting a tone of respect and hope that supports and honors every participant. Participants may only speak when holding the talking piece, which is passed clockwise around the circle to provide an opportunity for every participant to speak. Because it designates who will speak and who must listen, the talking piece reduces the role of the facilitator and eliminates interruptions. It also creates space for the ideas of participants who would find it difficult to insert themselves into the usual dialogue process. Each participant is encouraged to add to the understanding of the problem and to generate possible solutions.
The process may first involve separate circles for the victim and offender in which participants determine an action plan to address issues raised in the process. By consensus, the circle may develop the offender’s sentence and may also stipulate responsibilities of community members and justice officials. After the circle process, regular communication and check-ins are used to assess progress and adjust agreements as conditions change.
New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.
Rarely do victims and offenders have the chance to sit together and discuss a crime in a way that allows the community both to heal and to help prevent future offenses. In communities in the United States and Canada, a tradition that has existed for centuries is being adapted to deal with contemporary justice issues.
Peacemaking circles are a way in which people from many different perspectives can come together to have difficult conversations about conflict, pain and anger while creating the space to honor the presence and dignity of every participant. In addition to supporting victims and assisting offenders in making life changes, peacemaking circles are also being used to develop plans for families in crisis, resolve conflict in schools and in the workplace and bridge gaps between cultures and generations.