Let's take a minute to think about "circle sentencing"

I presently do complex civil litigation, typically involving land use, ocean access and construction work: Usually, it's rich developers suing rich companies and bringing in rich insurers. Not too much black-hat/white-hat stuff, usually.

However, my first love has always been tribal law. It's the reason I went to law school, and that's what brought me to the Great Plains. One of the fascinating things about indigenous law is the over-arching concept of "punishment" as much more a community shunning than it is one of vindiction as in Anglo legal traditions (yep, was a philosophy guy in college, why do you ask?). Particularly interesting is the concept of "circle sentencing"

 "John Marshall" of the Lakota.

What is circle sentencing? Interesting really, it's a form of "restorative justice" that takes into account all of the needs and concerns of the interested parties and victims of a particular crime. The State of California describes it pretty well.

A sentencing circle is a community-directed process, conducted in partnership with the criminal
justice system, to develop consensus on an appropriate sentencing plan that addresses the
concerns of all interested parties. Sentencing circles — sometimes called peacemaking circles —
use traditional circle ritual and structure to involve the victim, victim supporters, the offender,
offender supporters, judge and court personnel, prosecutor, defense counsel, police, and all
interested community members. Within the circle, people can speak from the heart in a shared
search for understanding of the event, and together identify the steps necessary to assist in
healing all affected parties and prevent future crimes.

Sentencing circles typically involve a multi-step procedure that includes: (1) application by the
offender to participate in the circle process; (2) a healing circle for the victim; (3) a healing circle
for the offender; (4) a sentencing circle to develop consensus on the elements of a sentencing
plan; and (5) follow-up circles to monitor the progress of the offender. The sentencing plan may
incorporate commitments by the system, community, and family members, as well as by the
offender. Sentencing circles are used for adult and juvenile offenders with a variety of offenses
and have been used in both rural and urban settings. Specifics of the circle process vary from
community to community and are designed locally to fit community needs and culture.

It sounds dirty hippy, but trust me; it's not.

Seems a fascinating concept, doesn't it? And one which would definitely be more at odds with the notion of punishment as a mechanism for restitution and rehabilitation, doesn't it? 
Well, imagine my surprise, when I was reading the local paper today, and the concepts of "circle sentencing" were brought to bear on the tragic story involving a 1-year old killed by a drunken driver:

Cradling a photo of his little girl, Wayne Braden sat in court with a heavy heart. A happy child who loved dogs and the ocean, 17-month-old Aliyah was the apple of her father's eye.

"There's thousands of girls that look just like that, beautiful, who are out there waiting to be smashed by drunks who have no consideration whatsoever," Braden said.

* * *

"I stand before you today with my head down in shame and with guilt for what I have taken from you," Kaleohano-Knittle said through tears. "You may never be able to forgive me. I have deprived you of your child."

"I acknowledge the devastation that I have caused in your life," Kaleohano-Knittle said. "Your continuing pain and sorrow are in my heart forever."

* * *

The 51-year-old says she no longer drinks, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and wants to speak about her experience to schools and community groups.

"I will work tirelessly to keep drunk drivers off the road," she said through tears. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

* * * 

Wayne Braden then stood up and hugged his daughter's killer, bringing others in the courtroom to tears.

* * *

"What I just witnessed was one of the most extraordinary acts of compassion and contrition that I have seen," Elizabeth Strance, Circuit Court judge, said.

So, when you hear the concept of circle sentencing and restorative justice; this is what we're talking about: Not a group kumbaya, but the best interests of the victim, his/her family, the state, and the offender. FWIW; this lady was then sentenced to ten years in prison, financial restitution and community service relating to her already-prolific anti-drunk driving public service work.

A tragedy not compounded by punitive measures is the point.



  1. I did not know about circle sentencing. I have been rereading Howard Zinn and this fits in perfectly. Thanks.

  2. When I was practicing in Kalamazoo, MI, the courts were beginning to explore a restorative justice program. I attended a local presentation about it, and how to work it into my criminal defense practice.

    I've since moved to upstate NY- where they just want to toss folk in prison...

    On a personal note- it's nice to see one of my people practicing law now. I was an Industrial DJ for years before trying to learn to wear color.