Intern Jenny Finlay summarises work by Walker and Kobayashi taking place in the US State of Hawai’i. The article, Hawai’i Federal Court Restorative Reentry Circle Pilot Project (2020, Federal Probation, 84, 48-55) explores a recent project using circle processes to support family group decision-making around reintegration after imprisonment.
Reentry circles involve a person awaiting sentencing coming together with their family, criminal justice stakeholders, and a facilitator, to address the harm caused by the events which lead to their offending. A reentry plan is created which outlines the steps the participant will take in the future. This process has been successful in empowering participants and, for those imprisoned, assisting in their reintegration post-release.
Reentry circles allow participants to have an open conversation, facilitated by a trained restorative justice coordinator. The goal is to discuss how to repair the harm done and make a plan for the future. This article outlines the development of the Restorative Justice Circle Pilot Project (RJ Pilot Project), commenced by the United States District Court for Hawai’i in 2015 and facilitated by the Pretrial Services for the District of Hawai’i. It uses the case study of a young woman, Cher, who was convicted of a felony drug offence and participated in a circle in 2015.
The development of the RJ Pilot Project involved meetings with criminal justice stakeholders and victim support agencies. In initial consultations, stakeholders emphasised the importance of early reentry services, allowing the individual to establish goals prior to their sentencing that can include to partake in prosocial behaviour during their time in custody.
While awaiting sentencing in the Federal Detention Centre-Honolulu, Cher met two women who had participated in circles through the RJ Pilot Project. They explained that they had met with their loved ones, made amends, and created a plan for their future. Their own circles consisted of family members, a federal pretrial officer, and a facilitator. The facilitator guided conversations about the harm that had been caused, how the harm could be repaired, what future goals the women had, and how they could achieve them. Based on this interaction and her remorse about her arrest, Cher decided to participate in a reentry circle.
An assigned facilitator undertakes extensive preparation, interviewing the applicant and their loved ones prior to a circle. The interview with the applicant takes a solution-based approach to identify their goals for the circle and their future goals, and to prepare them for what will be discussed at the circle. The circle process is also explained to the other participants in initial interviews. The applicant may decide how the circle begins. Cher chose to begin her circle by apologising to her parents for her behaviour. This emphasises the individual agency granted to the applicant by the circle process and gives them more involvement in the process than had the facilitator determined the introduction. Subsequently, the facilitator explains that the goal of the circle is to make amends and create a plan for reentry. The facilitator ensures that everyone speaks one at a time and is given a chance to have their views heard in a fair and positive way.
In Cher’s case, her brother was invited, but he could not physically attend the circle. When this happens, the person will be interviewed prior to the circle and have their views and opinions read aloud at the circle. Questions can include: “How were you affected by any past behaviour of your loved one and their incarceration? What could your loved one do to help repair any harm you have suffered?” (p.50).
During the conversation, the facilitator will ask the applicant what they are most proud of since their arrest, imprisonment, or release. This could include educational classes, remaining sober, or taking on employment within the prison. Following this, each participant is asked to point out the applicant’s strengths. The facilitator will also identify the strengths of the applicant and encourage the individual to acknowledge these strengths. Cher’s family shared that her strengths included being an outgoing and caring person with many friends.
The process then moves towards reconciliation. The facilitator asks the group how to repair the harm done. The participants reflect on who was affected by the wrongdoing, how they were affected, and how this could be resolved. This discussion aims to help everyone understand each perspective and heal together. All participants are invited to help create a plan for the future, although the final decision regarding the plan’s contents remains with the applicant. Following Cher’s circle, a written plan was distributed to the participants outlining the steps Cher would take to achieve her goals while in prison and post-release. The goals are divided into clear and specific steps to ensure that they are achievable and maintainable. The RJ Pilot Program rules stipulate that the judge receives no information on the circle discussions, nor should the offender’s participation in a circle contribute to the sentencing considerations. Confidentiality protects the participant from further prosecution as the discussions may address additional lawbreaking. However, the specific reparations made by the participant, and any positive steps they plan to take, will not impact their sentence, raising the question of whether or when such strict confidentiality benefits the participant and the criminal justice process. In Cher’s case, following her circle, she told the sentencing judge that she would be at peace with her sentence as she had made reparations with her parents.
Feedback has shown that the circle process is a powerful and healing experience for all involved. Circles are presented as non-judgemental environments where the applicant and their loved ones can have difficult conversations about the hurt and loss they experienced. It also helps those in prison to take responsibility for their behaviour and the events which led to their incarceration. Through this process, they receive reassurance from those closest to them that they can achieve their future goals and will be supported in doing so. Reflecting existing criminal justice practices, this approach places responsibility on the participant for their offending, which research suggests may risk failing to address environmental and external factors which lead to criminal behaviour.