“This isn’t life and death, but this is honking important for your life moving forward,” said volunteer Vicki Phillips at Tuesday’s circle sentencing meeting at the Redwood County courthouse.
The juvenile offender, a 19-year old who has pled guilty to aiding in a burglary, had missed the previous circle sentencing meeting two weeks earlier.
Addressing him, Phillips continued, “You’ve got a felony. So far we’ve heard a lot of excuses from you tonight. You’ve got to have a Plan A, B, and C in case you can’t get to these meetings. There will be consequences if this happens again.”
The other citizen volunteers nodded.
“This isn’t life and death, but this is honking important for your life moving forward,” said volunteer Vicki Phillips at Tuesday’s circle sentencing meeting at the Redwood County courthouse. The juvenile offender, a 19-year old who has pled guilty to aiding in a burglary, had missed the previous circle sentencing meeting two weeks earlier. Addressing him, Phillips continued, “You’ve got a felony. So far we’ve heard a lot of excuses from you tonight. You’ve got to have a Plan A, B, and C in case you can’t get to these meetings. There will be consequences if this happens again.” The other citizen volunteers nodded. What is circle sentencing? Earlier this year, Redwood County started a new program—”circle sentencing”—to give non-violent juvenile offenders an alternative to the conventional justice system. If the offender agrees to follow a social compact—a set of rules specific to him—agreed upon by a panel of citizen volunteers, he can have the charges dismissed and no end up on the permanent record. Rules can include behaviors at work or at home, while penalties can include restitution or doing community service. If the offender doesn’t cooperate, or live up to all the social compact rules, he will be kicked out of the circle sentencing program, and end up back in front of the judge for sentencing, with many offenders facing prison time. Circle sentencing isn’t necessarily easier than simply going to jail for awhile. It’s not designed to be. Talking pieces The process is called circle sentencing because that’s literally how the meetings are set up. The citizen volunteers, the offenders, and any interested family or friends sit in a circle. Small objects, called talking pieces, are handed around in an orderly way to determine who gets to talk at that point, with no one allowed to interrupt. “The purpose of the talking piece is to slow down the conversation and give everyone a chance to speak,” said Mark Triplett, Restorative Justice Coordinator for Redwood County. “When the talking piece is passed to you, it doesn’t mean you have to speak. You can just pass it on to the next person if you want,” said Triplett. The juvenile offenders and their families are answerable to a panel of citizen volunteers, who listen to all sides and make decisions about the offenders’ progress. “Everything in the circle is based on concensus,” said Triplett. Even the offenders are allowed to suggest rules. “We have three circles now, and we’re training the volunteers to create a fourth,” said Triplett. The first offender The first offender at Tuesday evening’s meeting was a teenager charged with 5th degree assault and disorderly conduct. He has been attending circle sentencing meetings every other week since May, usually with members of his family with him. At Tuesday’s meeting he listed off his community service activities for since the previous meeting, including handing out anti-bullying posters at school. His mom sat next to him, filling in details and noting down the volunteers’ suggestions. After getting his update, the volunteers agreed he was ready to be referred back to the court system for the judge’s final decision. “It’s better that (the juvenile offender) went through it at age 15 instead of 19, when he could have been tried as an adult,” said volunteer Sandy Sander. The circle sentencing system can’t make changes in what the judge ultimately decides, but can make recommendations for the judge to take into account. “If the charges against you are dismissed, we can schedule a circle celebration for afterward,” Triplett said. During the break after the meeting, the offender’s mother said the circle’s backing makes it easier for her to back up her own decisions. “It gets me off the hook,” she said. “If he doesn’t want to go to a meeting, I can say, ‘You have no choice.’” The second offender The second offender had a tougher time from the volunteers. Missing the previous meeting violated one of his social compact rules. The offender rattled off a list of work and family excuses why he had missed the meeting, and the volunteers agreed most of them sounded valid. Nevertheless... “I have to be the bad guy,” said volunteer Corey Bill when he got the talking piece. He pointed out the offender was guilty of violating the social compact in two ways, one of them involving being a roommate with a drug user. The volunteers let the offender know he might be tossed out of the circle sentencing program and find himself facing the judge if he messed up a second time. He started off by reading a poem he had written about how to deal with fear, then explaining how his life at home and work had been going for the previous month. As a highlight, he held up a common daily planner notebook he had started using to organize his time. The process of setting priorities and getting organized seemed to be a revelation to him. He also explained how he had given his latest paycheck to his parents to handle for him, so he didn’t rush out and spend it right away. The volunteers agreed that was genuine progress for him, and congratulated the progress he had made since his last meeting. They suggested it was time for him to move on to the next step—get his own bank account instead of depending on his parents to manage his money for him. After an hour or so of encouragement, cajoling, and warnings, the meeting ended for the night. When it was over, two young men had been given chances to get on with their lives they wouldn’t have had otherwise.