Uncle John, an elder who has been involved in the Circle Sentencing Program in Nowra on the New South Wales South Coast, is in a unique position to appreciate the second chance that circle sentencing provides to offenders.
“Circle Sentencing has a very good reputation, and has had a lot of positive outcomes. My son was the first person to get the opportunity to go to Circle Sentencing, it changed the way he looked at life and he didn't commit any further offences.”
The Circle Sentencing Program brings together the justice system, including court officers, police and a magistrate, and the wider Aboriginal community, to formulate an appropriate action plan for the offender, as an alternative to formal court sentencing.
While the magistrate still has to approve the plan, all the participants including four elders - and sometimes even the victim - get to have their say on what is a fair and proportionate sentence.
The circle is organised by an Aboriginal Community and Client Support Officer who contacts all of those involved and arranges a circle to meet in a ‘safe space’ such as a community hall, rather than a traditional courtroom.
Rebecca Phillis, the officer for the Nowra program explains: “By taking the sentencing process out of the court room and into the community with the respected elders and community members it reduces the barriers between the Aboriginal Community [and the justice system]."
“It allows the Circle panel to discuss the background and the effects of the offences which allows them to develop a more appropriate sentence for the offender, and more suitable to their current circumstances.“
Circle sentencing has been running in Nowra since it was trialed in 2002, and has expanded to eight other regional centres including Dubbo, Kempsey and Brewarrina.
There are over 50 Indigenous sentencing courts running across Australia in five states and both territories, with each having slight differences in the structure and process of the court.
Former Circle Sentencing Coordinator in Nowra and champion of the program, Gail Wallace, spoke to the Law Society of NSW in 2014 about its success.
“The greatest achievements have been bringing down the barriers between the courts and the Aboriginal community, gaining mutual respect and also gaining knowledge around the root causes of crime within Aboriginal communities.”
“I would say the success rate is about 60 per cent (which means 40 per cent of people who agree to circle sentencing reoffend), but the ripple effect is really powerful.”
While there have been mixed reviews about the success of the program in actually reducing the amount of people who re-offend, the reports have shown that the program has been successful in changing attitudes in the community, particularly people’s opinions of the justice system.
The involvement of community members often reveals just how difficult the role of a magistrate can be, particularly when balancing issues such as re-offending with some of the underlying causes of crime such as emotional trauma and addictions.
Rebecca Phillis also sees the programs as a way to reaffirm the cultural importance of elders within the community.
“It empowers them to have a say in the sentences for the offender to have a more suitable sentence depending on their personal circumstances. Having such respected Aboriginal members involved in most cases allows the offender to be more willing and open to talk about the reason behind the offences and it gives them an insight on how it effects other people and the community.”
Importantly for the elders themselves, including Aunty Barbara, “all community members participating in Circle Sentencing are extremely committed, and are all working towards the same goal.”