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Strategies for implementing Peacemaking Circles in Europe - Introductory Workshop

2012. 08. 08.


A two day-long workshop of the „Peacemaking Circles in Europe” project was organized by the National Institute of Criminology in cooperation with the Foresee Research Group in Budapest, between 29th and 30th March 2012, hosted by the Hungarian National Institute of Criminology.

Why Peacemaking Circles?

The Peacemaking Circles (PMC)  in Europe project runs between September 2011 until May 2013, under the leadership of the University of Tübingen. It aims to determine the potential of the peacemaking circles method as a European model, to test and research the implementation of the method in the justice system of three European countries governed by the principle of legality.

The implementation of the project was preceded by a qualitative background research based on expert interviews and focus groups to capture the knowledge, experience and expertise of legal personnel such as prosecutors, judges, policemen, victim aid representatives, probation officer mediators for the implementation of Peacemaking Circles. Besides the qualitative research trial-circles were carried out during the preparatory period to work out the methodological groundrules.

The aim of the workshop

The aim of the workshop was to share and discuss the results and experiences of the background research and the trial circles in the three different countries. Moreover to recognize the frequent attitudes of legal professionals about restorative methods on one hand, and the opportunities, the possible legal, institutional and contextual obstacles regarding the implementation of PMC-s on the other hand.

Forty people from three countries, Germany, Belgium and Hungary were participating on the workshop. People joined the workshop with various professional backgrounds: mediators from the public administration, civil mediators, researchers and other judicial representatives, such as prosecutors and probation advisors.

The first day of the workshop was opened by one of the leaders and constitutors of the Peacemaking Circles project, Dr. Elmar Weitekamp, professor at the University of Tübingen. The first day provided presentations about how mediation system works in different countries participating in the project. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Kerner, criminologist, professor at the University of Tübingen was talking about the legal and institutional framework of the German mediation system and the place of the mediation organization participating in the Peacemaking circle project, ’Handschlag Reutlingen’  in the system. Dr. Ivo Aertsen, professor at the KU Leuven Institute of Criminology and  Davy Dhondt, researcher at the KU Leuven Institute of Criminology and former mediator at the Belgian Suggnome organization gave an overview about the state of affairs of RJ practices in Belgium, and Zoltan Bogschütz, probation consultant at the Justice Service of Ministry of Public Administration and Justice focused on the conditions of the Hungarian probation directorate. It became clear that the implementation of Peacemaking Circles raises very different problems according to the mediation system of each countries. Due to the background of state-organized or civil institutions; furthermore if mediation is a diversion or an option parallel with the penal procedure.

After that the attendants got a deep introduction to the methodology of Peacemaking circles by a presentation from Dr. Beate Ehret, researcher at the University of Tübingen, who pictured the methodological foundations that differentiate Peacemaking circles from other methods and that interconnect them with other restorative methods. She compared Peacemaking circles with two other methods, Victim Offender Mediation and Family Group Conference. One of the main characteristics that differentiate Peacemaking Circles from other methods is the question of regulation: while in the other two methods the mediator sets the rules of the encounter, in Peacemaking Circles the participants create the rules and define the main values that are important to them as guiding principles of the discussion. Special rituals differentiate PMC-s from other methods, such as the use of the talking piece, opening and closing ceremonies. The talking piece and the ceremonies alike are cultural specific, worked out suitably to the community. Whereas in other restorative methods the mediators are impartial and neutral, in PMC-s the so-called circle keepers may involve their personal viewpoints into the discussion. PMC-s try to address broader levels of harm by including community members into the discussion.

What have we learnt?

Dr. Beate Ehret, Davy Dhondt, Dr. Tünde Barabás, Dr. Szandra Windt and Dóra Szegő researchers gave and overview about the results of the expert interview- and focus group-based background research that took place in the three countries. According to the results Peacemaking Circles can be an appropriate method in those penal cases where the justice system doesn’t find satisfactiry solutions, such as neighborhood conflicts, domestic violence and the issue of repeat offenders. An other criteria of eligibility would be the community relevance: those penal cases where a real community exists behind a crime seem to be appropriate for PMC’s: cases with many victims or offenders, cases committed by a group or against a group, cases committed within a circumscribeable community, e.g.: family, school, workplace, etc.  

The presentations concerned the relevance and meaning of community countrywise and casewise. Benefits and risks equally appeared in connection with the involvement of the community. Addressing the community’s needs in connection with the crime could be a benefit, such as bringing the conflict into a more open context, supporting the parties and healing the community by creating networks and strenghtening existing networks. Community may have a social control on the parties and raise the chances of desistance from crime. Nevertheless defining and finding real communities did not seem to be evident. The risk of invading the privacy of the encounter by widening the circle also appeared as an issue.

The other main issue of this section was the judicial representatives’ involvement to the PMC-s. Benefits such as the judicial representatives’ role to take care of the legality, or the PMC’s impact on judicial proceedings were raised; moreover the possibility to prosecutors, judges and other representatives of the judicial system to gain information from the restorative dialogue and the chance for the parties to be informed about the legal procedure’s possible outcomes and consequences. Risks like the breach of confidentiality of the meeting by the judicial representatives, or their presence as a threat to an open, equal dialogue were also discussed.

How to continue?
The second part of the workshop focused on the lessons learned from the first trial circles.
Methodological issues, the questions of case selection and the involvement of extra participants such as community members and judicial representatives was discussed according to the first experiences. Thematic working group discussions seemed to be adequate to fulfill this aim. Attendants could choose between workshops such as: ’risks and benefits of case selection, case preparation and involving participants’; ’before and after the circle: how to best prepare potential participants for the upcoming circle;  ’the connection between the circle and judicial procedure, follow-up circles’;  ’extra participants of the circle- community members and judicial representatives’; ’what are the given values of PMC-s compared to traditional criminal justice interventions and restorative methods’.

The workshops were followed by plenary presentations and discussions. Participants highlighted the importance of a sufficient preparatory work with the participants, which seems to be a clue for a successful circle. This is a more important border criteria than in case of other restorative methods.  They also underlined the usage of the talking piece, which determines the powerbalance of the circle and creates a safe environment, and the function of ceremonies, which lay the foundation of trust in the circle.

This native american approach of a community-based conflict revolution is a challenge due to mainly institutional and contextual barriers that appear at the three European legal systems governed by the principle of legality.

The Hungarian National Institute of Criminology hosted the workshop, which seems to be a symbolic action. It represents that the idea of Peacemaking Circles, such a bottom-up approach based on community participation is compatible with the research institute of the high prosecution service.   

The various backgrounds of the attendants expressed the aspiration that crime should be solved not only by one profession but cooperation within the sectors and professionals with different backgrounds.

The workshop is going to be presented in a workshop paper series,

Here you can find the detailed programme of the two day-long workshp held at the National Institute of Criminology and the summaries of presentations.

Presentations about the background research:
The opportunities of PMC in Hungary according to the opinions of the prosecutors
Lessons learned from the background research, Hungary
Key Findings from Expert Interviews: The Case of Germany
Lessons learned from the background research

Case Studies:
Lessons learned from the first trial-circles in Hungary – case studies

State of affairs of the RJ system:
Legal- and institutional framework of VOM in Hungary
State of affairs of the restorative justice practice – Belgium

If you are interested in the Peacemaking Circle project, click here!

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