Juvenile sentencing circles take aim at youth crime rates

WORTHINGTON -- With the hope of solving high juvenile crime rates in Nobles County, Juvenile Restorative Justice Agent Erin Top believes she has found the answer -- juvenile sentencing circles.

WORTHINGTON -- With the hope of solving high juvenile crime rates in Nobles County, Juvenile Restorative Justice Agent Erin Top believes she has found the answer -- juvenile sentencing circles.

The goal of juvenile sentencing circles, Top explained Tuesday, is to promote healing for all affected parties within the crime and include volunteer members from the community who stand as a mentor to the juvenile offender.

Sentencing circles will bring the juvenile, the parents, the victim, the support members and the community members all together at the same time to discuss the consequences of each individual involved in the crime, she said. Members of the circle will determine what the sentence and expectations will be for the juvenile offender. Cases will be handled outside the formal court setting, giving the offender an opportunity to correct the felony in a productive and natural manner.

"Sentencing circles offer everyone involved an equal say in how the crime should be handled and what the outcome should be," Top said. "Circles help everyone and heal everyone at the same time."

In order to participate in the sentencing circle program, the juvenile must plead guilty to the crime committed. The juvenile must also cooperate with circle members and the volunteer community members, as well as agree to complete the proper sentence agreement.


Once agreed upon by members of the court system, the attorneys, the parents, the juvenile and the volunteer members, the case can be handled as a part of the sentencing circle program.

"There is an application process for both the juvenile and the community members that want to be apart of the sentencing circle," Top said. "But once all the applications have been approved, the meetings will take place in an orderly manner when works best for everyone involved."

During the meeting, the offender and victim will each get to say how they were affected. The community members will help decided on a sentence, whether it's community service, apology letters or probation. The shortest time any case is expected to last is about six months, with meetings beginning biweekly and then switching to monthly if the juvenile is making progress with the sentence.

Parent(s) or the juvenile's legal guardian(s) are encouraged to attend the circle meetings to offer support and encouragement. If they are unable to attend, it's recommended that they follow up on what was covered.

As for the victim, he/she does not have to attend the regular circle meetings, but has the option to be notified about what took place during the meeting. The level of participation from the victim is determined upon their comfort level within the criminal process.

Volunteer community members are on hand to support both the juvenile and the victim involved in the case. They participate in the sentencing circle meetings and help to determine the appropriate sentence for the juvenile involved in the crime. Community members stand as a mentor for the juvenile and can be contacted after the case has been settled.

Community members who wish to volunteer to be a part of the sentencing circle must be a resident of Nobles County and at least 18 years of age to apply.

"These sentencing circles are really focused on group involvement," Top said. "Respect and trust are very important, key factors as well. Since everyone gets a voice in the sentencing process, we really need to trust that the juvenile and the victim will tell the truth."


By being a part of the sentencing circle process, juveniles will become more open to discussing their problems, feel more involved and contribute to the community.

"The sentencing circles show improvement for the juvenile offender and have been a huge success in other communities," Top said. "We in Nobles County hope to show the same success."

For more information on the Juvenile Sentencing Circles Program, contact Prairie Justice Center in Worthington. Two additional meetings covering the information on sentencing circles will take place at noon Tuesday, and 6 p.m. July 29 in Prairie Justice Center's training room.

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