Touching Spirit Bear

by Ben Mikaelsen

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Why is Circle Justice important in Touching Spirit Bear?

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Circle Justice is an alternative to prison. It is meant to heal, not punish.

“Circle Justice is for those ready for healing.  It’s not an easy way out.  In fact, a healing path is often much harder“ (Mikaelsen 38).

Circle Justice in this book is an experimental program in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is based on a form of justice practiced by Native American cultures for thousands of years. However, it is not solely restricted to the American Indian culture.

“Anybody can love, forgive, and heal. Nobody has a corner on that market“ (Mikaelsen 10).

 The idea is that the society must take some responsibility for the fact that this person did this act. Their role now is to rehabilitate that person, not punish him, for the good of society. Everybody is a part of the process, including the victim. 

“...Cole isn’t the only problem here tonight. He is only a symptom of a family and a community that has somehow broken down.  If we can’t find solutions, we all fail, we all share the guilt, and we all pay a terrible price” (Mikaelsen 49).

The candidate must apply for Circle Justice and plead guilty to the crime. They can withdraw that guilty plea at any time and go to trial. However, if they go to trial, they cannot return to Circle Justice. The candidate is not automatically accepted. First, the Circle committee will interview the candidate, talk with the victim, interview the candidate’s family and others, and decide whether they think the candidate is serious about wanting to change. This process takes time, and during that time, Cole will remain at the detention center.

After Cole went through the interview process, Garvey reports,

“The Circle needs to know if you're committed to wanting change.  Some think you still have an attitude” (Mikaelsen 21).

After Cole was accepted into the program, the committee had preparation meetings called Circles of Understanding.  Each meeting was considered a Healing Circle, but they would have different names for them depending on their focus.

There were Talking circles, Peacemaking Circles, and Community Circles.  Eventually there would be Bail Circles and Sentencing Circles (Mikaelsen 34).

The victim and his family may also join the Circle if they feel that it gives them a voice in the process and that the victim could also heal.

“Our challenge is to return wellness, not only to Peter Driscal, but also to Cole Matthews and to our community" (Mikaelsen 39).

Cole also needs a sponsor. The committee requires a person to go through the change with the candidate. Cole chooses Garvey. However, Garvey tells him,

“I don’t invest time in losers.  Unless you’re one hundred and ten percent committed to this change, you’re wasting my time and everybody else’s ---- you’re better off in jail” (Mikaelsen 21).

Next, the Keepers, the organizers of the circles, call a Hearing Circle where everyone gets together to try and find a solution to the problem. This Healing Circle is open to everyone who wants to help. Garvey tells Cole,

“Might be your parents, the lawyers, the judge, myself, community members, maybe even your classmates at school  Anybody can be a part of the Circle if they want to help find a solution“ (Mikaelsen 33).

Cole’s behavior upsets the committee, and it is Garvey who eventually develops a plan for Cole’s rehabilitation.

“It is possible I could make arrangements to have Cole banished to a remote island on the Inland Passage. This is something First Nation people have done for hundreds of years.  Cole could undergo a vision quest of sorts, an extended time alone to face himself and to face the angry spirits inside of him”  (Mikaelsen 56).

That is Cole’s sentence, and it will last for one year.

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