The circle is one of the oldest forms known to humanity. We may have gathered in circles ever since we became human, or even before that. Perhaps we sat in circles in caves gazing at the fire. Having no top or bottom, no beginning and no end, circles are ideal for discussions among equals. Some groups in my tradition, Wicca, call the circle "the place between the worlds," the place that lies between the world of form (the material world) and the world of spirit. In some Wiccan groups the circle is traditionally nine feet in diameter--a number that symbolizes the nine months we spend in the womb, and a sense of safety and protection. It is a place where you can let down your guard and be your true self.
In the academic world, people sit in rows and listen to lectures. People who sit around a conference table talk in a different way than those who speak from a podium or stage. Dominance and hierarchy dissipate; equality reigns.
Circles are being used all over Canada and the United States to bring about a change in the way we think about justice. Called "peacemaking circles," these meetings often combine certain practices of indigenous peoples (such as the use of a "talking stick" or "talking piece") with modern methods of conflict resolution. These circles have become one of the mainstays of a movement known as restorative justice.
Restorative justice began in Canada in the 1970s. The movement seeks to bring victims, offenders, and community members together to move justice beyond punishment and toward community healing. In most trials, the defendant is on one side and the state on the other. Victims often feel left out of the legal process, and defendants often feel they have been treated like a number, not a person. Often, at the conclusion of a trial, no one is satisfied, even if a criminal goes to jail or someone falsely accused goes free. The rip in the social fabric remains.
Restorative justice takes a different approach. It says that crime is harm and justice is healing, and that justice should be a process in which victims get to define the harm done to them and offenders and the community are restored to wholeness. This can involve a plan for the offender to make restitution to the community through community service or involvement with the institution or people who were wronged. Often family and community members become involved in helping the offender become a responsible member of the community--often a long, difficult, ongoing process.
In Minnesota, which seems to have taken the idea further than most places in the U.S., restorative justice includes several different ideas and programs: community service, family conferences, direct mediation between victims and offenders, and peacemaking circles. But it is the circle that has had the most radical impact.
"When you sit in a circle," says Pranis, a former housewife and school board member, "you can see everyone else, and everyone is at eye level." If the "talking piece"--which can be anything--is passed slowly from one person to another, everyone has an equal chance to speak. No one interrupts. This aspect of the circle is similar in form to the women's consciousness-raising sessions of the 1970s. But there's a difference. The slow passing around of the talking piece (in one case I've seen, it was an eagle feather, in another case a statue of an African woman) allows for moments of silence. There's a spiritual quality to the event. The meeting often begins with a prayer, and much of the talk is reflective and comes from the heart.
The circle in Minneapolis revolved around a young man of 15 who had stolen a bicycle and assaulted his father. The case wasn't neat or easy. There were issues of school truancy, refusing to show up for meetings, not taking responsibility for actions. Some of the talk was harsh, a kind of tough love; some of it resembled therapy. People spoke intimately and showed vulnerability, their tone often unconnected to the titles they bore in the outside world. The prosecutor tended to sound like a minister and the defense attorney like a father betrayed.
It was hard not to contrast this meeting with what a court appearance for this 15-year-old young man would have been like. The judge sits on the bench, higher than everyone else. The legal aid lawyer takes perhaps 60 seconds to state his case, the defendant mumbles something or other, and the judge turns to the next number in the docket. Instead, here was a group of 12 successful professionals spending an evening trying to save a young boy from a future of crime and jail. In this case, restitution was recommended and the boy and his father are trying to mend their relationship; in other cases, community service is seen as an appropriate resolution.
"It strips away all the other stuff we build up around ourselves and makes everyone in the room just a basic human being, " a Minnesota police officer told me, reflecting on the circles he had attended. "And when that happens we begin to change how we deal with each other, and that creates a very deep, spiritual experience." But he added that many people find it easier to distance themselves. Facing conflict is extremely uncomfortable.
Many prosecutors and defense lawyers are queasy--even suspicious about--restorative justice. "It's too victim-oriented." "It's too offender-oriented." "It takes too much energy and time." "It smacks of vigilantism." All of these criticisms have a grain or two of truth. But the real root of many of these fears is that restorative justice changes the system. It limits the power of experts and takes away the power that lawyers and judges have worked so hard to earn.
Kay Pranis says the most revolutionary aspect of restorative justice is that it challenges our reigning mythology. Instead of emphasizing human weakness and fear in the face of crime, it emphasizes the belief in the possibility of change and redemption. You could say that it also brings spirit into a part of the material world that seems most removed from it.