JUNEAU — Alaska Magistrate Mike Jackson of Kake first heard of “circle sentencing” in the mid-1990s, when alcohol-related problems in his village were burgeoning.
Kake had higher rates of accidental deaths, child abuse and suicides than just about anywhere in the state.
The idea of forming circles, Jackson learned, was for a moderator to bring together family, friends and others who know a victim or offender to help a judge hand down a fair sentence by considering local history, community beliefs and other views of a defendant’s background. It was used after a guilty plea or a conviction.
He tried out the idea in 1999 with a woman convicted of crimes related to her alcohol addiction. She had previously refused in-patient treatment. At the circle, state authorities told her it was her last chance before losing her kids, and her friends and family persuaded her to get help.
“She came back and was sober,” said Dinah Aceveda, who helped organize that circle and 66 others since. “She changed her life from that. When you have good people around you in that circle, in that community, that’s what can happen.”
Circle sentencing is about to be used for the first time in a felony case in Alaska. Jackson said the system recognizes Tlingit traditions and approaches to justice used since time immemorial in ways lost on state courts.
“What matters most under state court is punishment and control,” said Jackson, who also is a tribal court leader. “Determining guilt and punishment for the offender is the focus, but under circles it’s holistic in views of the community and the victim.”
In 2003, researchers from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University visited Kake and decided to honor the southeast Alaska community for its efforts at justice reform. A report on the town said the circle’s successes were occurring where the state court system had repeatedly failed.
“This has, of course, been especially significant considering the neglect and even outright hostility that the Alaska state government so frequently displays toward Alaskan tribes,” the report said.
In the intervening years, circle justice most often involved cases related to domestic violence, child neglect and minors consuming alcohol, and has expanded little.
Concerns have been expressed about unequal punishments for similar crimes, with some worried that people will get off easy. There are specific cases when circles proved ineffective that serve as fodder for critics. And others note Kake still faces many of the same problems as a decade ago.
Galena Magistrate Christopher McLain has advocated bringing courts to rural communities and using circles when possible since he took the bench in 2008.
He said those familiar critiques miss the point.
Judges follow state sentencing guidelines and make the final decision when circles are used, McLain said. And at least as many examples of ineffective outcomes exist in state courts, he said.
“(Circles) let me take community recommendations and craft a sentence that’s rehabilitative,” he said. “But people don’t get off easy. Many times they end up with a harsher punishment, but the point is we realize that we need each other to survive out here, and we’re going to have to live with each other after the punishment is over.”
McLain recalled a time when he was returning from a hunting trip on a snowmachine and got lost. He soon found himself low on fuel and running across fresh tracks from bears and a wolf pack.
Eventually he saw a man feeding his dogs on a cut bank at the Koyokuk River.
“When I got up there, I realized I had one of his boys in court not too long ago,” McLain said. “He was surprised to see me, but there was never any question he would help. He just got on his snowmachine and drove me out 10 or 15 miles until we found the trail. I would have died out there without him.”
Special circumstances in the Bush need to be understood and considered by courts for justice to be delivered, he said.
“What happens if I throw the book at the only fuel truck driver in a town?” McLain said. “Who’s going to deliver fuel if it’s 50 below? Judges need to know that. They need to know how a community wants that to factor in before they decide how to punish someone.”
Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Douglas Blankenship presides over McLain and the Fourth Judicial District, which stretches from the Canada border across the interior to Bethel. Blankenship said the expanse of his district and the numerous cultures it contains is one of the main reasons he instructs magistrates to head to rural communities for hearings as often as possible.
“(McLain) gets the dynamics of rural villages by going there, and that can’t be understated,” Blankenship said.
Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle is planning a trip to Tanana, an interior community of about 300, to use a circle to sentence a man who was charged with felony weapons misconduct. The man pleaded guilty to a Class A misdemeanor, the most serious allowed under law, and has outstanding charges the court is trying to consolidate with his current plea. An exact timeline has not been set.
Blankenship said circle sentencing in a case that started with felony charges could be a sign of things to come.
“We’re taking baby steps,” Blankenship said. “But there is great potential in taking as much as we can to where defendants reside. The rehabilitative aspects out there are much greater.”