Community Circles, also known as Peacemaking Circles, are a community‐directed process most commonly used for addressing issues surrounding local incidents of crime. Circles are a restorative justice process that bring together community - the people affected by crime - to actively participate in the response to violence and social problems. Community volunteers work with clients referred from the court system and victims, if they choose to participate. Circles in Washington County are created in partnership with the justice system, and create a respectful space to support victims, develop sentencing agreements for clients, and empower all interested community members to work toward preventing future occurrences of crime. Circles also take referrals directly from the community, such as neighborhood disputes, school conflict, domestic abuse victim support, or general community conflict resolution.
In 1997 several individuals from Canada including Mark Wedge and Harold Gatensby from the First Nations and Judge Barry Stewart from the Crown conducted a training in Minnesota. After the training Washington County began to do Sentencing Circles. In 1998 Judge Gary Schurrer, Maureen Walton from Probation, Judy Brown from Tubman Family Alliance, Diane Elias from Family Links, Mark LaPointe and Kay Longtin, community members in Cottage Grove, went to Carcross, Yukon Territory Canada to receive circle training. Cottage Grove circles started after that training with Stillwater starting the following year. In 2006 Woodbury began their circle. In 2007 these established circles were incorporated and in 2008 we received our 501(c) (3) exempt status.
Cases brought to the Circles process go through several steps, including an application procedure that has been developed by Washington County volunteers. There can be separate Circles for victims and clients, a Sentencing Circle to develop client sentencing recommendations to be submitted to judges, and follow‐up Circles to monitor the progress of clients or to continue to support victims.
Circles derive their strength from community participation, and are facilitated by trained volunteers called Circle Keepers. Keepers pass a talking piece to share speaking time in Circles. Strong community support results in lower recidivism of clients who go through the Circles process.