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Sentencing circles fall out of favour

Jan 07, 2014

from the article on The StarPhoenix:

Once seen as a progressive innovation in the justice system, sentencing circles have almost disappeared from adult courts in Saskatchewan.

Six adult sentencing circles were held in 2012, a significant decline from the peak of 39 in 1997, according to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice.

The lack of a neutral party to initiate the process, which serves victims as well as offenders, and a dearth of funding for the time-consuming job of arranging circles may have led to fading interest in the practice.

Judges and lawyers agree that bringing victims and offenders together in a neutral setting, along with family and community members, can teach empathy and responsibility, increase understanding and restore peace.

"It's a much more subtle way of doing justice. You're involving the larger community, the victim, their families, support system, resources. It's labour intensive, time consuming, and I think people maybe are not convinced as to the results," provincial court Judge Bria Huculak said in an interview.

Restorative justice circles were first used in New Zealand, based on traditional community practices for bringing harmony to communities torn apart by misdeeds. In Canada, they were seen as an indigenous cultural solution to the problem of over-representation of Aboriginal people in prisons. They were a frequent feature at legal conferences and are still introduced to students in law school.

In the eight years between 1993 and 2000, 161 sentencing circles were held in the province, all in La Ronge, Regina and Saskatoon.

Between 2001 and 2012, the process expanded throughout the province, but was used only 134 times. The majority - 109 in total - were held in Regina.

Huculak doesn't know why defence lawyers hardly ever ask for circles any more.

"(Maybe) it's the intensive nature of these. With many lawyers unfamiliar with the process, there's no resources to assist in setting the circle up. They may not see the end result as being worth the time and effort," she said.
Reducing offending is only one objective of the sentencing circle process, Justice ministry spokesperson Jason Matity said in an email.
"Providing aboriginal peoples with direct involvement in the sentencing process, mobilizing community support to assist in lifestyle changes by the offender and providing the victim a voice in the resolution of the offence must also be examined," Matity wrote.
"Community support is critical to the process," but "costs, such as the facility (if it is not being conducted at the courthouse), transportation, sustenance and Elder support are usually the responsibility of the offender and the community."
It is also up to the offender and the community to organize the sentencing circle, though community justice workers and court workers sometimes play a role, Matity noted.
"These factors can play a big role as to whether or not a community has the interest or capacity to conduct a sentencing circle," he wrote.
"Lack of community support challenges the circle concept and creates a barrier that impedes a successful result."
Justice sector costs, such as prosecutions and court worker programs, are covered by the courts. Enthusiasm for the process was high when the idea was introduced in the north, said Huculak, who became involved in sentencing circles when she was working out of La Ronge in the early 1990s.
"We did a huge number of circles which were all community-assisted, and nobody was paid and it was a lot of work. After five years, I think a lot of those communities burnt out. There's almost no activity in the north now, which is shocking to me," she said.
Read the full article.

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Kris miner
Kris miner says:
Jan 07, 2014 10:29 PM

I'm sure many factors have influenced this change. I wonder if holding them in space other than the courtroom would have given the community more ownership. The carpet medicine wheel is beautiful. I hope this is seen as a cycle and that the program might regenerate.

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