Participants speak one at a time, and may address a wide range of issues regarding the crime, including community conditions or other concerns. The focus is on finding an approach that leads to a constructive outcome, in which the needs of the victim and community are understood and addressed along with the needs and obligations of the offender. In the context of the group, the process moves toward consensus on a plan to be followed and how it will be monitored.
Circles do not focus exclusively on sentencing, and the process itself often leads participants to discover and address issues beyond the immediate issue of a particular crime. When sentencing is involved, the circle plan outlines the commitments required of the offender and may also include commitments by others such as family and community members. Noncompliance with the circle plan results in the case being returned to the circle or to the formal court process.
Because they do not have to focus solely on the crime, the victim, or the offender, participation in circles is not restricted to the immediate parties to the crime and those closest to them. Circles can include any community members who choose to participate. Every participant is heard—both in expressing their perspectives and feelings about the crime or other issues, and in proposing and committing to solutions.
The circle process allows for expression of its members’ norms and expectations, leading to a shared affirmation by the circle—not just for the offender, but for the community at large. This context offers renewed community identity and strengthens community life for its members through their participation.
A circle process is initiated when an offender or victim makes application. Support groups may be formed for the victim and the offender. Multiple circles may be held with the support groups before the larger circle occurs. After the circle process has produced a plan by consensus of the whole circle, follow-up circles typically monitor it.
To date, relatively little research on sentencing circles is available, although stories abound to support the general benefits of these processes. Gordon Bazemore and Mark Umbreit report that a study by Judge Barry Stuart in Canada “indicated that fewer offenders who had gone through the circle recidivated than offenders who were processed by standard criminal justice practices.” However, it will be of considerable interest when research is available on a more comprehensive set of outcomes reflecting the circle process’ objective to bring a measure of healing to the community, the victim, the offender, and their families.