St. Paul City Attorney Rolling out Community “Circle” for Some First-Time Offenders

The program would offer first-time offenders who commit low-level, non-violent crimes the option of literally sitting in a “circle” with community members and group facilitators to talk about the specific crime committed.

St. Paul

Rather than requiring fines or sending some low-level offenders to jail, the St. Paul City Attorney hopes that putting the offender in a sitting circle with community members will deter them from future crimes.

The St. Paul City Attorney’s Office in September is set to roll out their new Neighborhood Justice Program, which will use a restorative justice model to provide a community-based, victim-centered alternative to traditional prosecution in addressing crime.

The Pioneer Press reported that in lieu of traditional prosecution, the program would offer first-time offenders who commit low-level, non-violent crimes the option of literally sitting in a “circle” with community members and group facilitators to talk about the specific crime committed. Offenders who qualify won’t be charged or convicted if they successfully complete the program.

The report quoted St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson, whose office is rolling out the program, as saying, “By giving offenders a voice in the circle, they can explain why they did what they did and explore how past experiences have shaped their lives, and they are also forced to take responsibility for criminal conduct in a more meaningful way.”

The crime victim may also choose to participate in the circle in some cases, meaning the offender would have to face their victim within the circle. The offender would also have a say in how they would be held accountable for the crime. The report gave the example of an offender breaking into a vehicle in hopes of finding cash to pay for drugs and stated that the offender and circle members might decide that treatment and writing an apology letter to the vehicle owner is the best recourse to atone for the crime.

This program will be an expansion of the diversion program that the city already has in place that allows for offenders to have a charge removed from their record in the future. The community circle program would help offenders avoid the charge in the first place. Olson said that offenders who don’t show up or who don’t take the opportunity seriously would be charged for their crime and returned to the prosecution process, according to the report.

St. Paul’s mayor Melvin Carter is supportive of the program and said that the goal is to “reduce the likelihood” of recidivism, and the St. Paul Police Department called the approach “innovative.” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher also weighed in as a fan of the strategy, the report said.

The program will be operated in partnership with the Dispute Resolution Center and the Circle of Peace Movement, two St. Paul nonprofits with extensive histories in restorative-justice practices. It will initially be launched in two yet-to-be-determined high crime neighborhoods, but organizers hope to implement the program in all seven St. Paul wards, according to the report.

The city will hold several feedback sessions where community members can learn about the program, ask questions and weigh in with feedback that could help shape the development of the program.

A series of information sessions for the public will be held on the following dates and locations:

Monday June 3, 2019, 5 – 7 p.m. at the Wilder Foundation, 451 Lexington Parkway North.

Tuesday June 4, 2019, 5 – 7 p.m. at Gloria Dei Church, 700 Snelling Avenue South.

Thursday, June 13, 2019, 5 – 7 p.m. at Saint Anthony Park Library, 2245 Como Avenue.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019, 5 – 7 p.m. at Sun Ray Library, 2105 Wilson Avenue.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019, 5 – 7 p.m. at Sun Ray Library, 2015 Wilson Avenue.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. at Rice Street Library, 1101 Rice Street.

Thursday, June 27, 2019, 5 – 6:30 p.m. at the Riverview Library, 11 George Street East.

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