SEATTLE – Joe Cotton from the Seattle Archdiocese joined his voice with juvenile justice officials, other people of faith and victim representatives, all recommending that a teenager be spared jail time for first-degree robbery.
Instead, these members of the community-based Peacemaking Coordinating Team asked that 16-year-old Rimon be required to work with youth offenders, teaching them the importance of accountability and making reparation.
About 200 people — including archdiocesan employees and Catholics from local parishes — attended the Oct. 6 hearing at the King County Juvenile Court in Seattle. The court accepted all the recommendations, in what was the first of three pilot cases for its peacemaking circles.
“It had this very unifying effect to bring us all together,” said Cotton, the archdiocese’s assistant director for pastoral care and outreach. “Everyone recognized the emergence of the Gospel.”
The roots of peacemaking circles are found in Native American cultures, said Cotton, whose responsibilities include the archdiocese’s criminal justice ministry. Accountability is key to helping offenders and victims, their families and communities heal, he said. Through the circles, team members work with youth offenders to address not only their crimes, but also the complex environmental and family dynamics in their lives, Cotton said.
According to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, Rimon was charged with stealing two pairs of Nike tennis shoes from another teen, threatening to shoot him with what turned out to be a BB gun. It was Rimon’s first arrest, so a deputy prosecutor referred the teen to the peacemaking circle process. Over the next nine months, Rimon participated in 11 peacemaking circle meetings and five court hearings; there were more than 100 hours of home visits and check-ins, Cotton said.
At each peacemaking gathering, participants literally sit in a circle, and guidelines establish how the discussion begins, said Debra Redford, chair of the juvenile justice commission at St. James Cathedral, who participated in one of the circles for Rimon. People took turns speaking and actively listening to each other, in what she called an open and hope-filled discussion.
Joe Cotton, center, the archdiocese’s assistant director for pastoral care and outreach, listens to fellow members of the Peacemaking Coordinating Team who recommended a teenager be spared jail time for robbery. Photo: Courtesy Joe Cotton
When Cotton sat in the circle for the first time, “I realized that I was surrounded by the judge, the prosecuting attorney, the probation counselor, and other notable citizens who were not acting in their official capacities, but rather as community members who simply care about kids,” he said, writing about the experience.
To him, their presence communicated a recognition that something new is needed in the criminal justice system. “Thankfully, something new is emerging,” Cotton wrote. “And it is beyond hopeful!”
The circle members recommended that Rimon serve a year of probation and also be a member of the Peacemaking Coordinating Team for a year. He also is required to maintain good grades, attend school and check in with the circle each quarter.
Peacemaking circles don’t have to be limited to criminal cases like Rimon’s, Cotton said. They can also be used to address conflicts such as bullying at school.
Cotton is working to create community-based peacemaking circles as tools for archdiocesan parishes and schools. Redford said the juvenile justice commission at St. James is already exploring the idea of peacemaking circles.
Saroeum Phoung, an ex-gang member and founder/CEO of PointOneNorth Consulting, is a trainer for peacemaking circles, including King County’s. Participating in these circles “is really important for members of the faith community — all faith communities,” he said. “We need to work together more. We can’t do this work without faith-based communities.”