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Sentencing Circle

27-Jan-2022

EPS officer sees first-hand how the hearing tribunal works to resolve conflict.


No matter how many years of service an Edmonton Police Service (EPS) Constable has under their belt, there are always new ‘firsts’. 

For Constable Matthew Aasberg, a five-year patrol member in Downtown Division, a new first presented itself when a Crown Prosecutor reached out to ask if he would be willing to participate in a sentencing circle after the accused in a file Const. Aasberg worked on plead ‘guilty’. 

“I didn’t know what to expect for this but when I got into it, I found out it was a lot more informal [compared to traditional court proceedings],” said Const. Aasberg. “[The process is] a lot more personal…and I learned it was off the record….so that was definitely a new experience for me.” 

A sentencing circle is an Indigenous restorative justice hearing tribunal that is conducted in collaboration with members of the community and the criminal justice system. It is a process some judges adopt as an alternative to hearing formal sentencing submissions from the defence and Crown lawyers.

“The sentencing circle is very much focused on mending the relationship between the accused and the complainant and mending the relationship between the accused and the community,” said Chantelle Washenfelder, Crown Prosecutor.

After a judge hears recommendations made by circle participants, an appropriate sentencing plan that addresses the concerns of all interested parties is determined.  

“They are conducted as a part of sentencing, but the actual sentence handed down is still handed down in a courtroom by the trial judge,” said Washenfelder. 

This was the first sentencing circle to ever be held at the courthouse in Edmonton.

Const. Aasberg said he has had his fair share of experience in testifying, “but this was not at all like that.”

“We opened up court and then closed it quickly. Then we had a smudging ceremony…. We all sat in a circle and introduced ourselves and then, one-by-one, starting with the people most affected, talked about what had happened, what the accused had done, and how it affected the accused, the complainant, their friends, their family, their life, and then going beyond them to people like me or other advocates from the community.”

Facilitated by a trained Indigenous community member who is often called a “Circle Keeper”, sentencing circles work to include the victim and their supporters, the offender and their supporters, a judge, court personnel, the Crown prosecutor, defense counsel, police, and all interested community members.

In the circle, “everyone is equal, there’s no beginning, there’s no end. We all have an equal say in what happens,” said Stacey Harrison, Circle Keeper and Community Justice Worker with Saddle Lake Restorative Justice (SLRJ), a comprehensive youth and family-based program that engages communities to participate in the healing, reparation and reintegration of individuals involved in the criminal justice system. 

Unlike a formal court-based sentencing, the court hears less from the lawyers and more from those directly or indirectly affected by the crime. Participants speak from the heart in a shared search for understanding of the offence, and together, Harrison says they identify the steps necessary to assist in healing all affected parties and work to prevent future crimes.

According to Harrison’s colleague, Ramona Cardinal, Circle Keeper and Community Justice Worker, sentencing circle dispositions are arduous. At the same time as being evaluated and counseled, the offender is conducting a self-assessment based on the Seven Teachings—guiding principles that many Indigenous communities have adopted and adapted to suit their community values.

“Working through that is hard because it’s hard to be honest” she said. As a result, only those who are truly motivated to pursue this process of sentencing apply.

Discussions in the circle are designed to address matters such as: the underlying cause of the crime; the impact on victims, on families and community; what must be done to help heal all those involved; what will constitute the sentence plan and who will support the offender in ensuring the plan is successfully carried out.

“I think it was important that police participated in the [sentencing] circle,” said Const. Aasberg. “In the circle everyone gets a chance to say their bit and there’s all kinds of different point of views. In terms of criminal investigation, police have a, really kind of unique, point of view and I think that would have been missed if I didn’t have a chance to participate.”

Const. Aasberg wants to shed more light on sentencing circles so other members who may receive requests to participate in the future “know a little bit more of what they’re about.” He is appreciative of having had the opportunity to take part, as he felt his circle experience “worked really well, especially for this individual, as they were a first-time offender.”

Originally, the offender could have been facing up to a year’s worth of jail time, but because of the sentencing circle disposition, they instead received a 12-month conditional sentencing order that includes 24-hour house arrest for the first six months, supervision, and programming, plus two years-probation. 

The terms of the order are lengthy, specifying assessment, attendance at counselling and treatment programs; abstaining from drugs and alcohol; performing community service work; and includes culturally relevant conditions, such as seeking guidance to reconnect with their Indigenous heritage.

No matter how the process unfolds, sentencing circles work to promote healing, encourage accountability, provide a safe space for the offender to make amends while addressing the underlying causes of criminal behaviour, help to support better outcomes for victims, and strengthen communities and their capacity for resolving conflict. 

“We are all impacted by crime,” said Harrison. “How we deal with that and how we work through that, that’s how we come together as a society.”