Circle Peacemaking

The Kake Circle Peacemaking Program incorporates Tlingit culture into the justice system in the Organized Village of Kake, Alaska. Using a traditional circle peacemaking approach, the program seeks to address the underlying issues that lead to crime and conflict. Circle peacemaking focuses on healing relationships and preventing further disputes. The Circle Peacemaking Program focuses primarily on cases involving youth, but has expanded to handle adult cases as well. By reintroducing peacemaking in Kake, the program has led to a renewed appreciation for Tlingit culture in the community.

Program Running Length: 1999 - Present 

Location: Kake, Alaska

Land Characteristics: The Organized Village of Kake is a federally recognized tribe that serves Tlingit people living in the Kake region. Kake is a small village located on Kuprenof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of southeastern Alaska. The village comprises approximately 14 square miles, 6 of which are ocean. Kake can only be accessed by boat or by plane.

Population: There are 550 people living in Kake. The majority are Tlingit.

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BACKGROUND

Problem to Be Addressed

The Circle Peacemaking Program was created to address the social ills affecting Kake youth, most notably alcohol abuse and suicide. Tribal members felt that the Alaska state court system was not responding adequately to the problems caused by widespread alcohol abuse among young tribal members. The only Village Public Safety Officer assigned to the region lived on another island. The community wanted to respond to local problems on its own terms and break the cycle of addiction.  

Target Population

Circle Peacemaking targets both youth and adults, and can be called upon in times of crisis or as a form of celebration. For young offenders, the most common charges are minors consuming alcohol and criminal trespass.  For adults, the program works mostly with lower-level offenses. The program has also taken a few misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Circle Peacemaking can also be used as part of a substance abuse intervention plan for entire families. The Village Public Safety Officer and treatment counselors will help the family set up a plan for an inpatient treatment program; when family members return from treatment, the program will set up a celebration circle to mark the milestone and ensure support for reentry into the community.    

Program History

Peacemaking is part of the fabric of Tlingit culture and tradition, although for many years it was not used in Kake. In 1999, local leaders met with Tlingit peacemaking practitioners in neighboring Canada and realized that they had their own culture of peacemaking to draw on. Mike Jackson, a tribal member and state court magistrate, led the initiative, holding meetings with community members to discuss the roots of peacemaking and the need to address alcohol abuse and suicide among village youth. The community decided to form the Healing Heart Council, which in turn created the Circle Peacemaking Program. After its initial success with young people, the program expanded to handle adult cases as well. 

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PROGRAM DESCRIPTION

Program Goals

The Circle Peacemaking Program seeks to address the underlying issues leading to alcohol abuse and crime in Kake and to heal relationships that have been damaged. The program serves as an alternative sentencing process for individuals who have been convicted of a crime in Alaska state court or for community members who need to resolve conflicts outside of the court system. The program is focused on engaging the community and reinvigorating Tlingit traditions and customs, and it provides support to community members in moments of both crisis and celebration.  

Program Design 

The Circle Peacemaking program provides a culturally relevant sentencing process based on Tlingit tradition. The program receives referrals from the court, the Village Public Safety Officer, the district attorney’s office, the public defender, and from the broader community. The Circle Keeper meets with the participant and conducts a mini-circle, during which the Circle Keeper discusses what will happen in the circle and how to conduct oneself during a circle peacemaking process. The Circle Keeper will then invite community members and interested family and friends to the circle. Each person is given a chance to speak from the heart, with the ultimate goal of creating a plan—called a consensus agreement—for improved behavior and repaired relationships. If there is an active court case, the Circle Keeper will send the consensus agreement to the Superior Court judge, who reads it into the record at sentencing, with agreement from the district attorney and defense counsel.  The judge will order the participant to work with the circle for the duration of probation.

Program Administration 

The program is administered by the Kake Tribal Court. Mike Jackson—a tribal member and Alaska District Court Magistrate—serves as Keeper of the Circle and has been heavily involved in developing and running the program.  

Case Flow Process

Eligibility Criteria

In criminal court cases, offenders are eligible for peacemaking after entering a guilty plea with the State Court. The program is open anyone living in Kake, both Native and non-Native residents.. 

Referral Process

The prosecutor, defense attorney, and offender can all suggest that a case be referred to peacemaking. If all three agree, the case will be turned over to the Healing Heart Council for Circle Peacemaking. Local law enforcement will occasionally refer individuals to peacemaking even if no formal charges are brought. The program also accepts referrals from the community at large.

Peacemaking circle

After receiving a referral, the Healing Heart Council first conducts a “mini-circle” to prepare the defendant for the peacemaking process. The mini-circle, which is held with the defendant and a few supporters, gives the Council a chance to find out more about what led to the disruptive behavior. The mini-circle is also used to prepare the defendant for the larger circle, and the Council explains the circle peacemaking process to the defendant in detail. In cases involving victims, the Council holds separate mini-circles for the victims and their supporters.

Once everyone is prepared, the Council brings together a group of village volunteers to formally sentence the offender in a peacemaking circle. Circles have varied in size from six to over 60. They are facilitated by the Keeper of the Circle and usually last between two to four hours, sometimes longer. The goal of each session is to identify and address the underlying causes that led to the offense and repair the relationships between the offender, the victim, and the community. Sessions end when the participants demonstrate healing and consensus is reached regarding the offender’s sentence. For example, a typical sentence for underage alcohol consumption might include a curfew, community service, or a formal apology.  

Supervision and Compliance

After the sentencing circle is complete, the offender may be asked to participate in additional support circles. Support circles play a crucial role in determining whether the offender is complying with the outcome of the sentencing circle. According to Mike Jackson, community members monitor the final agreement much like probation officers in the state court system. In this way, the community monitoring itself—an important requirement for life in remote parts of Alaska.

Termination Criteria

Offenders who are found not to be complying with the sentencing circle are sent back to state court for sentencing.  

Celebration

Circles are held not only when people are in trouble. The program also has an important role in bringing the community together to celebrate its accomplishments. For example, the Circle Peacemaking Program will hold a circle for someone who has achieved sobriety. The community celebrates and witnesses that individual’s success and offers words of encouragement to keep that person on a healthy path.

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PLANNING & IMPLEMENTATION

Funding

The Circle Peacemaking Program operates on a volunteer basis. According to Mike Jackson, “If you’re going to have change, it’s got to start from within.” Jackson explains that change will not happen because of a grant award from an outside agency. Rather, it must come from the hearts of community members willing to invest in one another.

Technical Assistance

The Kake Circle Peacemaking Program was introduced after the success of a similar program in the Yukon Territory in Canada. Since its inception, the Kake program has been at the forefront of reintroducing peacemaking into tribal court systems in the United States. It has provided technical assistance to numerous other tribes seeking to reintroduce traditional forms of conflict resolution, including other Alaskan communities such as Haines, Sitka, and the Juvenile Justice Center in Anchorage. Mike Jackson, Keeper of the Circle, has made presentations on the Kake Circle Peacemaking Program across the country. 

Factors Contributing to Success

Drawing on Tlingit culture: A major reason for the success of the Circle Peacemaking Program has been the enthusiasm of Kake community members to incorporate Tlingit culture into the justice system.

Limited resources in the state system: Kake and other remote parts of Alaska have long been faced with a lack of resources provided by the state justice system. The Circle Peacemaking Program offered a meaningful response to this challenge and has made itself an invaluable part of the community.

Challenges

Remote location: Kake’s remote location is a challenge for the Circle Peacemaking Program, which has to coordinate with outside providers, such as drug and alcohol counselors, to provide many critical services to participants. Kake does not have enough local services to assist participants with issues like as drug addiction, domestic violence, or anger management.

Lessons Learned

Progress takes time: One of the most significant lessons learned through the Circle Peacemaking Program is that progress takes time and patience.

“The benefits don’t show up overnight but, on the other hand, there will be generations and generations of children yet to come who might not be affected by the same problems.” - Mike Jackson, Keeper of the Circle
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PROGRAM OUTCOMES

Number Served

In its first four years of operation, the Circle Peacemaking Program served 80 young people and over 60 adults. Since then, issues with law enforcement have made it more difficult to set up circles. In the last two years, the Village Public Safety Officer has been more open to referring cases to the program and will even participate in circles. In 2013-2014, there were two circles per year for adults and one for juveniles. 

Program Effectiveness

The program has had remarkably high rates of completion and has been successful in reducing recidivism and encouraging participants to enter drug and alcohol treatment programs. Over 97 percent of adult participants (66 out of 68) have complied with their consensus agreements. The program has also been effective in reinvigorating Tlingit culture and cultural values in Kake.

Community Response

The Circle Peacemaking Program enjoys strong community support. Village residents now comment on the perceptible difference in their community since the program was introduced. Moreover, the Alaska state court system’s response to the program has been positive despite the state government’s historical opposition toward tribal sovereignty. The Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court has visited Kake to observe the program and has spoken positively about it in his State of the Judiciary addresses.

Success Stories

Reducing recidivism: The Circle Peacemaking Program has observed a reduction in recidivism among participants. In contrast to conventional state court sentencing, peacemaking circles offer offenders the support and encouragement of fellow community members, a voice in resolving their own cases, and ongoing monitoring. Since the program’s inception, 66 out of 68 adults have participated in the program without repeating their offenses or violating other laws during their probation period. Two out of 68 reoffended.

High rates of completion: During its first four years of operation, 78 of the 80 youth referred to the Circle Peacemaking Program completed the program and complied with their circle-imposed sentence—a 97 percent success rate. Further, all of the 24 young people assigned to peacemaking for underage drinking successfully completed the program and complied with the terms of their sentences.

Encouraging treatment: The Circle Peacemaking Program has also been successful in encouraging its participants to address their substance abuse problems. In the program’s first case, for example, a young alcoholic mother agreed to peacemaking to prevent the permanent removal of her children by the state. The mother’s previous attempts to get sober had been unsuccessful. But with the support of the peacemaking circle, she was able to complete her treatment, return home, and regain custody of her children.  

Positive impact on peacemaking volunteers: The Circle Peacemaking Program is also having a positive impact on its volunteer peacemakers. Several peacemakers have enrolled in trade school or college to continue their formal education. One peacemaker got a degree in criminal justice and works as a professional counselor at the Native clinic in Juno.

Reinvigorating Tlingit culture and cultural values: The Circle Peacemaking Program has also played an important role in promoting Kake’s traditional Tlingit culture. During peacemaking circles, participants are encouraged to share traditional stories and pass on knowledge they’ve gained from their own experiences. This focus has reportedly led to a renewed interest in Tlingit culture among tribal youth. It also helps people turn to culture for support and as inspiration for staying sober. 

Examples: An early case involved a brother and sister who were both in high school. The sister was an exemplary student, but the brother was getting into alcohol. The parents brought the problem to the circle, during which it became clear that the parents were also drinking. The circle told the parents to stop drinking in order to model good behavior for the boy. They decided to stop drinking. The boy took his cue from his parents and also stopped drinking. He graduated and now works at the power plant. His sister got an advanced degree and works for the state of Alaska. As a result of peacemaking and a holistic approach, the whole family turned itself around. The parents haven’t returned to drinking in over fifteen years.

In 2013, there was a circle for a young man graduating from high school who was charged with reckless driving. The circle focused on his driving and his attitude and lack of respect for other peoples’ property. His whole family, the Village Public Safety Officer, the Circle Keeper, and two friends all came together for the circle. Now the young man is doing well.


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