Peacekeeping circles can reform punitive system, Pranis says



In her search to address the problems currently facing the United States’ justice system, Kay Pranis found answers in a tradition dating back thousands of years.

Peacekeeping circles, in which participants sit in a circle and pass around a talking piece, have their origins in the native peoples of North America. Whoever holds the piece has permission to speak, so all voices are heard.

Today, Pranis uses the millenia-old model to bring together the offender, victims, community members, and even judges and police officers into a conversation.

“Out of respectful dialogue … ordinary people have the wisdom to resolve their own issues,” she said.

Pranis, a longtime advocate of the restorative justice movement and peacemaking circles, will speak at today’s Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy.

In her role as an independent trainer and facilitator, Pranis guides the peacemaking circle so that all participants are supported and striving toward their best selves.

“None of us is just the worst thing we ever did in our lives,” she said.

Pranis believes that such circles can be incorporated at different stages of the legal process and used for varying degrees of criminal behavior, whether it be a diversion program for lower-level crimes before a case has reached a courtroom or meetings in prisons between victims and offenders of serious crimes. She firmly believes that more development is needed in the process of reintegrating offenders back into society; a circle of the offender’s community could help develop a plan for success.

Such assistance from community members is often a shock to the offender, who isn’t used to the offer for help, Pranis said.

“They’re often blown away that people [who] could be home sitting on their couch watching TV are there to help them,” she said.

Circles often meet once every two weeks for anywhere from a few months up to two years, depending on the seriousness of the issues to be addressed. The group discusses how to repair the damage and avoid a repeat of the criminal activity. Pranis said that it often takes time for offenders to trust the circle to be effective. Most are used to a punitive system that makes them feel so powerless that they lack the awareness of the harm they’ve caused.

“The system only looks at the individuals in terms of the harm they caused, and not in terms of who they might be as a whole human being,” Pranis said.

But when they’re treated with respect, offenders have more courage to acknowledge the impact of their crimes, knowing they’ll be treated respectfully, no matter what.

Many offenders may have already lost hope. But Pranis believes peacemaking circles can change that.

“If we change the way we respond to harm,” she said, “we can use those events … to make our community stronger. And that that’s a very hopeful idea.”