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Minnesota State Supreme Court Upholds Use of Sentencing Circles

A January 2002 Minnesota Supreme Court decision reinforced the purpose and decision-making authority of sentencing-circles. The case questioned whether a circle could include a stay of adjudication as a part of sentencing recommendations.
The case in question involved two felony theft counts, one count of wrongfully obtaining public assistance and one count of wrongfully obtaining food stamps. In a plea agreement, the State and the offender, Singe Pearson, agreed that the case would go to a sentencing circle and return to court for sentencing.  The circle recommendations included:
  • stay of adjudication;
  • restitution;
  • credit counseling;
  • community service;
  • attendance in follow-up circles; and
  • appearance in court for sentencing.

The purpose behind the stay of adjudication was to avoid a felony record for the offender. The circle felt that since the offender was not a risk to public safety, this path would least impact her future employment. Although the state objected to the stay of adjudication, the district court accepted the recommendations.

In the court of Appeals, the court sided with the State ruling that a "restorative justice program does not have the authority to assign a sanction that would be improper if imposed by the district court." The ruling was founded on the criteria set out for a court to stay adjudication. 

In overturning the appeals court, the Minnesota State Supreme Court held that  restorative justice programs are given the authority to assign appropriate sanctions. This included a stay of adjudication when both sides agree beforehand as in a plea agreement. When the two sides agreed to the sentencing circle, there were no limits placed on the possible sentence recommendations. The court stated

"The work of a circle is often arduous, emotional and time-consuming.  Necessarily, then, any limitation on the agreement to send a case to a restorative justice program, if allowable at all, must be made up front, before the laborious process of reconciliation and resolution takes place.  To allow an after-the-fact objection to the authority of the sentencing circle would eviscerate the purposes of the restorative justice program."


See the decision.

A Description of Circles.


Lynette Parker

February 2002


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