At a St. Paul church, Russel Balenger held up a shiny quartz stone and set the ground rules for the conversation to come.
Rule No. 1: Only speak when you’re holding the talking piece, he told about 30 people. No. 2: What’s said in the circle stays in the circle.
Balenger was facilitating a weekly restorative-justice circle, a conversation intended to foster racial healing in the community. He’s been leading circles like this for years, initially to bring together families of St. Paul gang members. Now, the city is adopting elements of the age-old circle practice as part of a new city diversion program aimed at first-time offenders of minor crimes.
The city is partnering with The Dispute Resolution Center, along with Balenger’s The Circle of Peace Movement organization, to help design the program and train the facilitators.
Tamara Mattison, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center, said restorative circles allow participants to have a stake in resolving their own mistakes.
“We find that it's the best accountability that you could offer someone because they're involved in how they want to repair the harm that they've caused,” said Mattison.
The city attorney’s office launched the new ETHOS program this week in two of the city’s seven wards. It stands for Engaging community, Taking responsibility, Healing, Overcoming obstacles and Sustaining solutions. Under the new model, first-time offenders can resolve their crimes through talking it out in a restorative circle, instead of going to court, paying fines or spending time in jail.
ETHOS is designed for individuals who’ve committed a misdemeanor and don’t have a previous criminal history. The offender, a victim, and a community member facilitating the conversation talk through the incident. Community members have gotten training from Balenger and other facilitators to become “circle keepers” for the program.
“There's a real aspect of that person feeling that they can have the opportunity to repair with people, and the community can also feel like they're heard, they're part of the process, so that healing does occur on both sides,” said St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson.
Olson said she was searching for a non-punitive way to address minor offenses, and hopefully lower recidivism rates.
The facilitator helps the two participants talk about what happened, what caused it, and how it can be resolved. After an offender completes the program, the crime would be expunged from their record.
Not only will the offense be forgiven, Olson said all information said in the circle remains confidential and protected.
“Part of the opportunity here is we aren't using anything that they are saying in the circle or any pre-requirements to enter the program as admissions, so if we end up back in a traditional prosecution, we wouldn't use those statements against them in court,” she said.
ETHOS is modeled after a similar program in San Francisco and Yolo County, California. About 91 percent of people who participate in that program complete it, and 4 percent commit new crimes.
In St. Paul, a typical case for the program would involve a misdemeanor such as theft or property damage. If anyone were harmed by the crime, the victim would first be asked if they would like to participate along with the offender. More serious cases like assault wouldn't be eligible.
Mattison credits Native American communities as the originators of restorative circles but said many other cultures have a version of their own. Restorative justice is a practice that’s been facilitated throughout the state in different schools and juvenile justice centers. Mattison said she has seen the success rate firsthand.
“The high schoolers that I've worked with never did end up in the criminal justice system,” she said. “So I know the restorative practice dialogue works.”
Olson said the city has experimented with restorative approaches to crime, but this is the first time it's had a formal program. She said it's important to include community members as circle leaders even if they have criminal records.
“Not all criminal records are appropriate for all types of circles, but certainly we're welcoming all people with records into that community as well because that's a real way for people to also connect into their own experience,” she said.
ETHOS started this week with five cases in the city’s first and second wards, Mattison said. Eventually, Olson hopes to bring the program to all seven wards.
“Wherever I see this take place, it’s a positive effect. People don't have to be afraid of each other if they know each other,” Balenger said.
The question is: Will it work? City leaders say they'll know the program is a success if people can leave the criminal justice system — and stay out.
Correction (Sept. 15, 2019): A previous version of this story misspelled Lyndsey Olson's and Russel Balenger’s names and misstated the level of a misdemeanor. This story has been corrected and updated.