Sarah’s family saw her black eye and bruises and called the police. Her boyfriend, John, was arrested and faced felony domestic violence charges—it wasn’t his first time. Sarah didn’t want John to go to jail. She feared he would be fired and they would lose their house. But she wanted him to get help, and for the violence to stop.
Four years earlier, a group of restorative justice, domestic abuse, and criminal justice practitioners in Duluth, MN began holding monthly meetings to discuss a common frustration: the relentless stream of men in the community using violence against their partners. The group was especially interested in the problem of repeat offenders: men who had been referred to existing programs and probation but continued to abuse their partners. After long and careful deliberation, they built a pilot restorative circles program for intimate partner violence.
John and Sarah were the program’s first referrals.
Restorative justice is a community-based approach to justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime. It departs from the contemporary criminal justice system in several ways. First, it views crime as more than lawbreaking, recognizing that offenders harm victims, communities, and even themselves. Second, restorative justice views success differently—rather than determining how much punishment should be inflicted, the focus is on how much harm can be repaired or prevented. Third, restorative justice directly involves affected parties—rather than leaving decisions in the hands of government officials, it includes victims, family members, and communities. It relies on the participation of ordinary people to confront and solve problems.
The idea behind the Duluth program was to integrate elements from restorative justice with the knowledge and practices of the battered women’s movement. Duluth is well known for its pioneering role in the area of domestic violence. The “Duluth Model” is a community-coordinated response that prioritizes safety and healing for victims, taking the blame off these victims and increasing accountability for those who abuse. The new restorative program would be a partnership between prosecutors, defense, the judge, probation, victim advocates, and the community.Restorative justice can take many shapes; Duluth’s program uses a form of restorative justice called circles. Circles are guided by circle keepers who facilitate discussion and equality by passing around a talking piece, the holder of which at any given point is the only person allowed to speak. Circle discussions emphasize relationship building and a shared search to understand the root causes of problem behavior. In cases of intimate violence, this means addressing a person’s belief system and patterns of control and abuse that go beyond physical violence. Circles also identify the steps necessary to heal affected parties and prevent future harm. The dialogue and decision-making processes are consensus-based and guided by values such as respect and nonviolence.
The circle process is voluntary and people may always opt for traditional court proceedings instead of circles. Victims also need safe ways to take part, without heightening the risk of retaliation. The unequal dynamics created by intimate violence prompted the policy of separate circles for each partner. Victims would be kept informed and asked for input regarding their offender’s circle, but be offered their own circle process.
Support circles are offered to those victimized by intimate partner violence. People who have used violence against their partner may participate in transition circles if they’ve already served a jail sentence and are transitioning back into the community, or sentencing circles if they were referred to the program before receiving a traditional court sentence.
John participated in a sentencing circle, which meant that his circle would eventually recommend a sentence to the judge. It involved weekly meetings with two circle keepers, six community members (two of whom were also victim advocates), his father, and his probation officer.
Restorative circles rely on family and community members to both challenge harmful behavior and provide positive support to change. The steering committee recruited a diverse pool of volunteers who had experienced family violence or chemical dependency, had volunteered with other restorative programs, or were identified as mentors in the community. The community members were unpaid, ordinary people motivated by a desire to end intimate partner violence. They received two days of training about restorative circles and intimate violence.
John was suspicious of the circle at first, saying “I wasn’t sure if I could trust anyone.” The group members challenged John’s beliefs about men and women, and pushed him to talk about the effect of his actions. But they also shared their life experiences in the circle—stories of incarceration, recovery from chemical dependency, witnessing domestic violence as children, and surviving intimate partner violence as adults.
John said, “As things went on, I learned to trust them. They weren’t trying to judge me. I benefited from their advice. I also benefited from the accountability I felt to the circle, and still do…There were uncomfortable times. I was jailed at one point, for reoffending. It was difficult to face everyone again.”
While Sarah reported that John’s behavior was improving, there was another incident of violence in which John hit her. He was arrested and jailed while his circle met to consider their options. Sarah wanted him to continue in the circle. The group decided that John would remain in the program but could not live with Sarah. As one circle member said, “We could have given up on him, but what good would that do her?”
Sarah was asked again if she wanted a support circle, and this time she said yes. She had shied away from a circle at the beginning, not yet ready to talk about what was happening. Sarah’s circle had two circle keepers, two family members (her cousin Liv and daughter Tami), and two community members who were survivors of intimate abuse. Sarah said, “Everybody was just so nonjudgmental and real…they’ve been there too.”
Participating in the support circle helped Sarah’s family as well. They found comfort and strength in the circle setting; it was a safe space to talk about intimate violence and to express their love and concern for Sarah. Liv said, “Up until that point, it had been difficult…he was very controlling.” One of the circle keepers said, “It gave her support people the tools that they needed.”
Sarah had become more isolated from her family and other social supports during the years of abuse, and the circle helped repair those relationships. Sarah sought help from an employment agency and found full-time work, after years of being discouraged by John and other partners from holding a job.
Sarah described the effect of the circle this way: “I started liking myself again and getting back to who I was, who I want to be. I wasn’t exactly sure what I liked to do anymore. My choices used to be so limited and this [the circle] just opened up everything. I started getting the energy and the strength mentally to get out of bed and move forward.”
John continued to struggle with sobriety, employment, and mental health. John’s circle determined that he was still an ongoing safety threat to Sarah and needed to be temporarily removed from the community as part of his sentence. Everyone, including John, agreed that he would go to a community correctional facility for six months, and then begin working on how to repair the harm.
The circle continued to meet with John during his incarceration and upon his release. Sarah ended the relationship while he was incarcerated. John’s circle facilitated the process of dividing their possessions, with an emphasis on John making reparations. Sarah was satisfied with the outcome. Most important to her was that John accepted their break-up. He did not call, write, or stop by her house anymore — a huge relief for Sarah.
John participated in other restorative actions as well. He began paying child support to the mother of his four-year-old child. He volunteered to do maintenance projects at the building where he attended men’s nonviolence classes. But John continued to vacillate between his new life and his old patterns. At one point he was returned to prison for violating an order for protection against a woman he had dated.
John’s actions illustrate what is commonly true about intimate partner violence: it involves entrenched thought patterns and behaviors. Circles would continue as long as the process was deemed helpful or necessary.
John still keeps in contact with two members of his circle. He has not committed any acts of domestic violence in the last three years. John’s dad, who participated in his son’s circle, reflected on the process: “I’d been dealing with his issues for many years and got to a point where I gave up. I saw a group of people who donated their time to help somebody. It gives you some hope that there’s [sic] people out there willing to help. That’s a good feeling.”
Duluth’s restorative pilot is now a funded program of Men as Peacemakers, a non-profit organization focused on ending violence against women and children. The Domestic Violence Restorative Circles program regularly accepts about 10 cases per year. It continues to recruit and train community volunteers about intimate violence and restorative circles.
The program demonstrates the value of direct involvement of family and community members in discussions and decision-making about intimate partner violence. As one volunteer said, “I began to feel more responsibility—that it was part of my responsibility to help stop domestic violence.”
The family, friends, and neighbors of our communities are untapped resources in the movement to end intimate violence. They are the people who want to help, but aren’t sure where to start. Restorative justice provides an invitation to the table and the vision: the restoration of healthy human beings and relationships, and the empowerment of all people to live free of violence.
 All names have been changed.
 Johnstone, G. & Van Ness, D. (2007). Handbook of Restorative Justice. Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing.
 Stuart, B. & Pranis, K. (2006). Peacemaking circles. In D. Sullivan & L. Tifft (eds.), Handbook of restorative justice: A global perspective (pp.121-133). London and New York: Routledge.
 It is the policy of the program to never ask a victim to participate in the circle of the person who harmed her. It would only be considered if requested by the victim and to date, this has not occurred.