A circle of healing
[Editor's note: This is the first installment of a two-part story on a restorative justice program in Washington County.]
The Yukon is a long way from Washington County. But a traditional practice of restorative justice used by the native populations in the westernmost Canadian province has found its way to the communities of Cottage Grove, Stillwater and most recently Woodbury.
It's called community circles, a form of restorative justice that, according to its modern proponents, is a community-based process to respond to conflict in a manner that advances the well-being of individuals, families and the community.
And it involves a unique partnership between members of the judicial system and volunteers from within the community who are trained to work with both the offender and victim.
Together, they help develop a sentence and sense of healing after the offender has been found guilty of a crime.
Circles in Washington County
Residents of Washington County have been practicing the unique form of restorative justice since 1998, when Cottage Grove residents Kay Longtin and Mark LaPointe were two of the first local volunteers to go through the training process for the circles program.
The husband and wife team voluntarily run the Washington County Community Circles chapter in Cottage Grove.
"The thing I like about the circle is the equality," said Longtin, who traveled with her husband to the Yukon to get first-hand knowledge of the process that was first put into practice by Canadian Judge Barry Stuart, considered the founder of the modern community circle. "Instead of the top down approach of someone telling you what to do," Longtin said, "the circle uses the consensus of everyone working together to find a solution."
And the process to find that solution isn't an overnight ordeal.
Whether the circle is taking on a couple struggling with domestic violence or a teen found guilty of drug-related crimes, time and honesty are the keys to success, said Joe Spolidoro, chairman of the board of Washington County Community Circles and founding member of the circles chapter in Woodbury, which was formed in 2006.
"Our job is to try to recognize what the harm is to the community," said Spolidoro, "and sometimes the harm to the community is only the tip of the ice berg reflected within the crime involved. It might be a minimal crime, but when you start peeling back the onion you can find there was some major consequences in there from the community's perspective."
For the last two-plus years Spolidoro and fellow Woodbury resident Bob Storlie have been working to grow the community circles chapter in Woodbury. The pair are 3M retirees who were among the first Woodbury residents to go through the training process to become a "circle keeper."
Circle keepers are simply volunteer members of the community who participate in a circle with the offender and victim of a crime to help each party work through the process.
Storlie said he became a circle keeper after spending many years volunteering with other organizations that counsel people with chemical abuse issues.
"For me it's a way to get involved with people's lives that maybe need some outside perspective, something they wouldn't get if they hadn't found their way into the criminal justice system," Storlie said.
In order for a criminal case, or sometimes civil case, to be referred to a circle in Washington County, a judge must propose the option and the victim must agree that they believe it will help the offender. The offender then has to agree before a judge to participate in the circle. Prosecuting and defending attorneys also must sign off on the order.
"The fact that they are here because of the criminal justice system, that's incidental," Storlie said. "From my standpoint as a volunteer in the circle, this is a way for me to help somebody that's in a situation where they need help and they're willing to get some help."
Board member Mark LaPointe, who was partly drawn to the circles program because of his native heritage, said the program is based on the earliest forms of community conflict resolution in all cultures that eventually gave way to more modern judicial systems.
"If you look at any culture in the world and go back far enough, you can see this form of community involvement (in criminal matters)," LaPointe said. "Some where along the line, the current (judicial system) developed and it's a good system, but it doesn't work for everybody."
From the Yukon to the Twin Cities
Judge Gary Schurrer has spent more time in the courtroom the last few years than he'd like to. Part of that has to do with fact that the state judicial system has faced a series of budget cuts over the last few legislative cycles leading to less resources for the courts. Another factor is an increase in criminal and civil cases brought into the courtrooms in Washington County. And while Schurrer hopes many of the offenders he sees in the courtroom don't become familiar faces, they often do.
"That's sometimes the unfortunate nature of our judicial system," said Schurrer, who helped bring community circles to Washington County after he went through a training session with its founders in the Yukon. "As the judge I spend only a limited amount of time with (offenders), and I can sentence them to jail time, probation or some form of restorative justice. A lot of times, I'll never see these folks in the courtroom again. But there's too many times that I do see them, and it's often for the same type of offenses."
Schurrer was one of three Washington County judges who traveled to the Yukon in the late 1990's to learn enough about the circles program to bring it back to Minnesota. He said all the judges in Washington County District Court are aware of circles as a restorative justice option.
Circles is practiced widely throughout judicial systems in Canada, but is still a unique form of restorative justice in the America. Minnesota was one of the first states to implement circles as an avenue for restorative justice. Hennepin and Washington counties were the first two Minnesota communities to bring circles into an official relationship with the courts system.
Schurrer said other forms of restorative justice utilized in Washington County, such as diversion programs and victim/offender conferencing, often work to lower recidivism rates. But not every individual responds to the same form of restorative justice, he said.
And when an offender continues to come through the judicial system, it's not only the judge's time that is being wasted, Schurrer said.
"A lot of the cases we refer to circles are domestic violence cases," Schurrer said. "And if a domestic violence case comes to courts and stays in traditional system, they're often supervised by community corrections officer, for maybe two years or more.
"But if they instead go to circle for those two years and the community supervises that person, we've just saved an officer time from one case, and that's a big deal, because it's allowing someone an opportunity to make a change and helping alleviate an overloaded courts system."
Visit www.peacemakingcircles.org for more information on Washington County Community Circles.
Washington County Community Circles is holding a training session the weekend of April 4. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer member may contact board members Joe Spolidoro at (651) 459-7690 or Kay Longtin at (651) 458-3736.