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Peacemaking: An Ancient System with Modern Applications

 Victoria SweetVictoria Sweet, JD, Senior Policy Analyst, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Summary: Ms. Sweet describes the role of the Native American tradition of peacemaking in creating a justice system that is trauma-responsive.

A traditional Native American approach to justice has recently gained national attention as both tribal and state courts search for ways to make the justice system more trauma-responsive. Peacemaking is a consensus-building approach to justice that focuses on healing and restoration instead of conflict and punishment and is based on cultural or local community values. While peacemaking practices vary from tribe to tribe, some principles remain constant. Peacemaking proceedings are held in a circle with no party being symbolically above or below another party, and a trained peacemaker encourages members of the circle to talk out problems until a resolution is reached. Parties involved in the circle usually include the victim, the offender, and other family and community members that may be impacted by the results of the conflict or dispute. Relationships are of primary importance and both community harmony and individual wellness are emphasized. Also, the principles of personal accountability, safety, flexibility, and respect are found in almost every discussion on this justice model.

Trauma-informed justice advocates promote similar principles. Experts in the field encourage courts to focus on creating environments that are sensitive to trauma, to set policies that promote healing, and to focus on the unique needs of individuals involved in court proceedings. [1] In the adversarial system, it can be difficult to create a sensitive environment that meets the needs of traumatized parties. As judges around the country are becoming trauma-informed, they are discovering that changes must be made to the court environment, the format of hearings, and the mindsets of court officers and staff. The adversarial system does many things well, but it was not designed to be trauma-responsive.

Currently, at least two state courts have implemented peacemaking practices, one in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York and one in Washtenaw County, Michigan. In addition, Los Angeles County is exploring plans to implement peacemaking in county courts, including the Children’s Court. Why would a state court turn to peacemaking? One of the volunteer peacemakers at Red Hook explained the value he sees in this approach, “We want peace in our community. But we’re not going to get it by sending more of our youngsters to prison.” [2] Red Hook is focusing the peacemaking program on minor assault cases involving neighbors and family members to respond to this concern. The Washtenaw County Peacemaking court has a broader scope, focusing on everything from child protection cases to class action lawsuits. According to a pamphlet put out by the court, the model replaces the adversarial model with a system that provides “more comprehensive, harmonious and balanced solutions that integrate the repairing of harm, healing of relationships, and restoration of the individual.” [3] Currently, 94% of participants say that they would recommend peacemaking to others. [4]

While peacemaking is not the only way to be trauma-responsive much can be learned from studying the principles, and courts that are practicing peacemaking are seeing positive results. Any approach that encourages a safe environment, respect for all, and building harmony for individuals and communities can only help promote healing in the justice system and reduce the risks of retraumatizing already traumatized individuals. [5]

Author biography:

Victoria Sweet is a senior policy analyst at NCJFCJ. She has worked as the legal fellow at the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law, at the White Earth Tribal Court, and the Indian Law Resource Center. Sweet received her JD from Michigan State University with a certificate in Indigenous Law and Policy and is a member of the Minnesota Bar. Her publications include articles on human trafficking and other human security concerns.



[1] Shawn B. Marsh & Carly B. Dierkhising, Toward a Conceptual Framework for Trauma-Informed Practice in Juvenile and Family Courts, Juvenile and Family Justice Today(2013).

[2] Sadhbh Walshe, NY Court Applies Native American Traditions to Modern Justice, Al Jazeera America (Oct. 18, 2014).

[3] Washtenaw County Peacemaking Court Pamphlet (2013), available through the court: 101 E. Huron, P.O. Box 8645, Ann Arbor, MI 48107, 734-222-3020.

[4] Id.

[5] For further reading on the subject of peacemaking see Native American Rights Fund, Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative; Center for Court Innovation, Can Peacemaking Work Outside of Tribal Communities?.


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