Sentencing Circles works like Teen Court in that the program’s goal is a student offender’s making amends for his or her action. However, rather than a formal hearing in which the student testifies in front of a jury, a Sentencing Circle joins people, adult and student volunteers and, of course, the youth him or herself, in a discussion, a Circle, to decide what sanctions may permit the student to reasonably pursue that reconciliation.
Respondents (the term we use for defendants) still have an opportunity to speak on their own behalf, but they also have a say in determining the sanctions assigned to them. Parents of respondents, as in Teen Court, may also participate in a Circle, but they can do so in a more collaborative setting.
Why offer Sentencing Circles as an additional restorative justice option? Many circumstances may disqualify a referral from admission to Teen Court: learning disabilities, a student’s immaturity, past charges, even the seriousness of their offense. Sentencing Circles can serve these students because it can better tailor the restorative justice experience to meet their unique needs.
After respondents successfully complete their sanctions, their charges are dropped. But the higher aim, just as in Teen Court, is for youth to emerge educated in how our choices, particularly illegal ones, impact people other than ourselves–including people we love. By the same token these youngsters experience the kind of fulfillment that can only come from helping others.
For the community, Sentencing Circles offers a much more effective and less expensive means of dispensing juvenile justice, and thereby a better way of ensuring community safety.