A circle of healing, Part 2
[Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part story on a restorative justice program in Washington County.]
Community circles, a form of restorative justice, is a community-based process to respond to conflict in a manner that advances the well-being of individuals, families and the community. It's a concept that has found its way to the cities of Cottage Grove, Stillwater and, most recently, Woodbury.
Based on traditional practices used by native populations in the Yukon province of western Canada, it involves a unique partnership between members of the judicial system and volunteers from the community. Participants are trained to work with both the offender and victim to help develop a sentence and sense of healing after the offender has been found guilty of a crime.
Washington County Judge Gary Schurrer has seen an increase in criminal and civil cases brought into the courtrooms in Washington County. 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.
Schurrer was one of three Washington County judges who traveled to the Yukon in the late 1990s 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.
Schurrer has been an advocate for the circles program so much so that his family has become actively involved on the board for Washington County Community Circles Inc., which received its official non-profit status last year.
Lynne Schurrer leads the Stillwater chapter for the organization, which has handled nearly 20 cases since 1999. That might seem like a low number to people who aren't familiar with the process, she said.
Oftentimes a circle might be held once every other week or once a month for almost two years, Schurrer said, which allows the circle keepers to establish a sense of trust and community with the participants.
"A lot of times you begin a circle and you're talking about the charge or the offense that put the offender there," Lynne Schurrer said. "But when you begin getting to know these people you see there is more involved. You're getting into all the other kinds of stuff that is going on in their life and everyone gains a sense of understanding as to what may have contributed to this offense."
Mark LaPointe, a member of the Washington County Community Circles board, said those who form the circle communicate and discuss via a "talking piece," which is generally a feather passed clock-wise among persons in the group.
This tradition prevents people from talking over each other and allows for circle members to think through what they are about to say, LaPointe added.
"In circle, we try to set the tone in creating a safe and sacred place," LaPointe said. "We are not here to judge people, we're there to help them repair the harm. There is plenty of emotion, but it is thoughtful and respectful."
Lynne Schurrer said the Stillwater circles chapter has dealt with a variety of cases, ranging from domestic violence or drug abuse, to minor driving violations that have caused serious consequences.
A relatively highly-publicized case was referred to the Stillwater circles chapter when it was in its infancy. Several family members traveling in a car were killed in an accident. The person responsible for the accident received a minor driving violation -- no alcohol was involved.
But because of the deadly outcome of the accident, the case was referred to community circles. Those affected by the incident were provided an opportunity to heal among volunteer members of the community, Schurrer said.
"In that particular case, the family of the victims didn't want to see the person responsible go to jail," Schurrer said. "They just wanted them to learn from the incident and become a better driver. But it also provided healing opportunities for both parties."
In other instances when cases referred to the circle involve repeat offenders, the circle provides an opportunity for the offender to face not only the victim, but the community they live in.
"Whether the offense is large or small, the more relationships people have in a community the less likely they are to commit a similar offense," Schurrer said. "That's one of our core beliefs."
Looking to grow the program
The circles program is also getting support from local police departments who say they can see the benefits first-hand.
In Woodbury, circles chapter leaders recently presented their program to members of the Woodbury Public Safety Department, something department director Lee Vague said has been a valuable resource to his officers.
"The effectiveness of this program comes from the fact that it is volunteer-based, and that helps us in several ways," Vague said. "First, you're taking case loads off our officers, and second, because you have volunteers who are willing to work with residents in their community, you establish this sense of community responsibility.
"And it's a long-term process, where our officers might not always be able to follow up with offenders once a restorative justice program is completed. But with circles, there's an understanding for the offender that they are dealing with members of their our community. They build an important sense of trust with their neighbors."
Mark LaPointe said that in the almost 40 cases the Cottage Grove chapter has completed, there hasn't been a time when he can't remember someone in the circle running into one of the participants after the fact.
"You see the people make the changes during the circle, and because they are making those changes in front of members of their own community, they begin to feel a connection to the community, and an obligation to continue to make those changes," LaPointe said.
Judge Schurrer said he continues to advocate for community circles as a form of restorative justice because he believes it is truly effective in helping individuals heal with the help of their community.
"We'd love to have more people volunteer to work with circles so they can handle more cases, touch more lives and make the community a better place to live," Schurrer said.
For more information on Washington County Community Circles go to www.peacemakingcircles.org
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.