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What can circle sentencing courts tell us about drug and alcohol problems affecting Aboriginal communities?


In New South Wales, circle sentencing courts take place outside of the courthouse, in a more informal community setting. The circle is made up of the magistrate, prosecutor, victim, offender (and his or her supporters), four respected Aboriginal Elders (who are significant to the offender), a representative of the support agencies and a lawyer from the Aboriginal Legal Service. The group talks about the impact of the crime on the victim and looks at the background of the offender and what caused him or her to get on the wrong path. The discussion can last up to 3 hours, after which the group develops a circle sentencing outcome plan, upon which all parties agree. The most important recommendations are made by the Elders. The outcome has to be acceptable to the magistrate. Nowra’s circle sentencing court has been operating for close to 12 years and the magistrate there has never yet disagreed with the Elders. The circle outcomes also need to suit the ability of offenders to comply with the conditions, as we don’t want them to fail.

How the circle relates to the Aboriginal traditional way of dealing with offenders

Up until the 1860s in the Shoalhaven region, we had a council of karadji men to administer tribal law. A locally known karadji man was Johnny Burriman. Keith Campbell wrote of him in the South Coast Register:

The work of Johnny Burriman to gain recognition for an important place…