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Circles prevent future crimes, advocates say

The Yukon Territory is a long way from Washington County. But a traditional practice of restorative justice used by the native populations in the westernmost Canadian province has found its way to the communities of Cottage Grove, Stillwater and most recently Woodbury.

It's called community circles, which bring convicted offenders and victims together to develop a sentence and sense of healing.

Circles in Washington County

Residents of Washington County have been practicing the unique form of restorative justice since 1998, when Cottage Grove residents Kay Longtin and Mark LaPointe were two of the first local volunteers to go through the training process for the circles program.

The husband and wife team volunteer their time to run the Washington County Community Circles chapter in Cottage Grove.

"The thing I like about the circle is the equality," said Longtin, who traveled with her husband to the Yukon to get firsthand knowledge of the process that was first put into practice by Canadian Judge Barry Stuart, considered the founder of the modern community circle. "Instead of the top-down approach of someone telling you what to do," Longtin said, "the circle uses the consensus of everyone working together to find a solution."

And the process to find that solution isn't an overnight ordeal.

Whether the circle is taking on a couple struggling with domestic violence or a teen found guilty of drug-related crimes, time and honesty are the keys to success, said Joe Spolidoro, chairman of the board of Washington County Community Circles and founding member of the circles chapter in Woodbury, which was formed in 2006.

"Our job is to try to recognize what the harm is to the community," said Spolidoro, "and sometimes the harm to the community is only the tip of the iceberg reflected within the crime involved. It might be a minimal crime, but when you start peeling back the onion you can find there was some major consequences in there from the community's perspective."

For the last two-plus years Spolidoro and fellow Woodbury resident Bob Storlie have been working to grow the community circles chapter in Woodbury. The two are 3M retirees who were among the first Woodbury residents to go through the training process to become "circle keepers."

Circle keepers are simply volunteer members of the community who participate in a circle with the offender and victim of a crime to help each party work through the process.

In order for a criminal case, or sometimes civil case, to be referred to a circle in Washington County, a judge must propose the option and the victim must agree that they believe it will help the offender. The offender then has to agree before a judge to participate in the circle. Prosecuting and defending attorneys also must sign off on the order.

"The fact that they are here because of the criminal justice system, that's incidental," Storlie said. "From my standpoint as a volunteer in the circle, this is a way for me to help somebody that's in a situation where they need help and they're willing to get some help."

Board member Mark LaPointe, who was partly drawn to the circles program because of his native heritage, said the program is based on the earliest forms of community conflict resolution in all cultures that eventually gave way to more modern judicial systems.

"If you look at any culture in the world and go back far enough, you can see this form of community involvement (in criminal matters)," LaPointe said. "Somewhere along the line, the current (judicial system) developed and it's a good system, but it doesn't work for everybody."

From the Yukon to the Twin Cities

Judge Gary Schurrer said he always hopes the offenders he sees in the courtroom don't become familiar faces, but they often do.

"That's sometimes the unfortunate nature of our judicial system," said Schurrer, who helped bring community circles to Washington County after he was one of three judges to go through a training session with its founders in the Yukon in the late 1990s. "As the judge I spend only a limited amount of time with (offenders), and I can sentence them to jail time, probation or some form of restorative justice. A lot of times, I'll never see these folks in the courtroom again. But there're too many times that I do see them, and it's often for the same type of offenses."

Circles is practiced widely throughout judicial systems in Canada. Minnesota was one of the first states to implement circles as an avenue for restorative justice, and Hennepin and Washington counties were the first two Minnesota counties to bring circles into an official relationship with the courts system.

Schurrer said other forms of restorative justice utilized in Washington County, such as diversion programs and victim/offender conferencing, often work to lower recidivism rates. But not every individual responds to the same form of restorative justice, he said.

And when an offender continues to come through the judicial system, it's not only the judge's time that is being wasted, Schurrer said.

"A lot of the cases we refer to circles are domestic violence cases," Schurrer said. "And if a domestic violence case comes to courts and stays in traditional system, they're often supervised by community corrections officer, for maybe two years or more.

"But if they instead go to circle for those two years and the community supervises that person, we've just saved an officer time from one case, and that's a big deal, because it's allowing someone an opportunity to make a change and helping alleviate an overloaded courts system."

Community relationships

Schurrer has been an advocate for the circles program so much so that his family has become actively involved on the board for Washington County Community Circles Inc., which received its official nonprofit status last year.

Lynne Schurrer leads the Stillwater chapter for the organization, which has handled nearly 20 cases since 1999. That might seem like a low number to people who aren't familiar with the process, she said.

Oftentimes a circle might be held once every other week or once a month for almost two years, Gary Schurrer said, which allows the circle keepers to establish a sense of trust and community with the participants.

"A lot of times you begin a circle and you're talking about the charge or the offense that put the offender there," Lynne Schurrer said. "But when you begin getting to know these people you see there is more involved. You're getting into all the other kinds of stuff that is going on in their life and everyone gains a sense of understanding as to what may have contributed to this offense."

Mark LaPointe said those who form the circle communicate and discuss via a "talking piece," which is generally a feather passed clock-wise among persons in the group.

This tradition prevents people from talking over each other and allows for circle members to think through what they are about to say, LaPointe added.

"In circle, we try to set the tone in creating a safe and sacred place," LaPointe said. "We are not here to judge people, we're there to help them repair the harm. There is plenty of emotion, but it is thoughtful and respectful."

Lynne Schurrer said the Stillwater circles chapter has dealt with a variety of cases, ranging from domestic violence or drug abuse, to minor driving violations that have caused serious consequences.

A relatively highly publicized case was referred to the Stillwater circles chapter when it was in its infancy. Several family members traveling in a car were killed in an accident. The person responsible for the accident received a minor driving violation -- no alcohol was involved.

But because of the deadly outcome of the accident, the case was referred to community circles. Those affected by the incident were provided an opportunity to heal among volunteer members of the community, Schurrer said.

"In that particular case, the family of the victims didn't want to see the person responsible go to jail," Schurrer said. "They just wanted them to learn from the incident and become a better driver. But it also provided healing opportunities for both parties."

In other instances when cases referred to the circle involve repeat offenders, the circle provides an opportunity for the offender to face not only the victim, but the community they live in.

"Whether the offense is large or small, the more relationships people have in a community, the less likely they are to commit a similar offense," Schurrer said. "That's one of our core beliefs."

Looking to grow the program

The circles program is also getting support from local police departments who say they can see the benefits firsthand.

In Woodbury, circles chapter leaders recently presented their program to members of the Woodbury Public Safety Department, something department director Lee Vague said has been a valuable resource to his officers.

"The effectiveness of this program comes from the fact that it is volunteer-based, and that helps us in several ways," Vague said. "First, you're taking case loads off our officers, and second, because you have volunteers who are willing to work with residents in their community, you establish this sense of community responsibility.

LaPointe said that in the almost 40 cases the Cottage Grove chapter has completed, there hasn't been a time when he can't remember someone in the circle running into one of the participants after the fact.

"You see the people make the changes during the circle, and because they are making those changes in front of members of their own community, they begin to feel a connection to the community, and an obligation to continue to make those changes," LaPointe said.

Washington County Community Circles will hold a training session the weekend of April 4. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer member may contact board members Joe Spolidoro at

(651) 459-7690 or Kay Longtin at (651) 458-3736. Visit www.peacemakingcircles.org for more information on Washington County Community Circles.

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