Restorative Justice Circles offer spiritual support and encouragement to those reentering society after incarceration. (Submitted photo)
With rising levels of incarceration in the United States, new methods to reduce recidivism within the justice system is ongoing through the efforts of researchers and experts. When studying reoffenders, the study of family relationships is often an integral component in predicting repeat criminal behavior among formerly incarcerated individuals. Encouraging strong familial ties can produce lasting impact among the incarnated and can help deter future incidents of crime.
To help bolster the relationships between imprisoned men and women and their families, “Circle Groups” were created to offer the strong family support needed to reintegrate into society. Those without family integration are at a greater risk for criminal relapse.
In 2004, at the request of Fr. Gregg Chycinski, pastor of Blessed Savior Parish, two human concerns/multicultural committee volunteers, Mike Malloy and Phil Kremsreiter, began working with Milwaukee Police’s Faith-Based Initiatives group. A judge at the time asked for their help in establishing a “Restorative Justice Circles” group.
According to Kremsreiter, the concept behind the circles, which they began in 2004, was to bring a small number of individuals returning to the community after incarceration and have them meet with several community members.
“The circle would listen to their stories and offer spiritual support and encouragement in their struggle to reenter the community and the lives of their families,” he said. “Offering a non-judgmental, supportive environment was determined to significantly impact the lives of these individuals. Most of the people participating never reentered the criminal justice system.”
However, while much attention is provided for the incarcerated, the Blessed Savior volunteers wondered about the families of the incarcerated and whether they needed support.
“The resources and information for families was extremely limited, and living with the limitations of the system put tremendous strain on the families,” said Kremsreiter. “Families had to be concerned with how to work with the system, how to pay the bills and how to keep the family together with a significant adult away.”
Other problems surface with an incarcerated family member, such as who will care for the children if there is an absent parent, how to reintegrate into family life, or how to deal with limitations from the supervision rules placed on the returning individual. Trying to find employment with a conviction record is also difficult and creates a great strain on the family.
“The Blessed Savior ministry team began to reach out to other organizations in the area to see what others were doing and what resources were available for families,” said Kremsreiter. “Some careful inquiries led us to Dcn. Tom Hunt, of the Cathedral of Saint John, and Anne Haines, episcopal representative for urban ministries. Dcn. Tom had begun a monthly support circle for those with an incarcerated family member. He shared his experience and model as a beginning point for new efforts. Haines offered the support and interest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Funds from the USCCB Katharine Drexel Black and Indian Grant Program helped the volunteers with providing resources to the Restorative Justice Circles. The grant included backpacks with personal care items and resource information, as well as a bible and Blessed Savior Ministry contact information. The Family Support Circles began in 2010; they were first designed to stabilize the neighborhoods and later began reaching out to the families of the incarcerated.
“The grant allowed us the funds to begin advertising the Family Support Circles as well as providing materials for the program. It also ensured that there was never a cost for anyone who wanted to participate in the programs,” said Kremsreiter.
Blessed Savior collaborated with Wendel Hruska of Milwaukee’s Project Return, one of Milwaukee’s leading programs to provide resources and support for the incarcerated to integrate into the community.
“Through Project Return, we began hosting programs to introduce ourselves to the greater neighborhood on Milwaukee’s Northwest side. Several resource fairs were held, and the groundwork began to begin our Family Circles of Support,” said Kremsreiter.
Once the pandemic hit, the successful in-person circles were no longer an option and the team scrambled for ideas to continue the ministry. Through Project Return’s example of hosting restorative justice circles online through Zoom, Blessed Savior followed suit and created an online meeting for Family Circles of Support.
“One blessing that came through all this collaboration is the addition of Joan Plumley as a co-facilitator for the circles,” said Kremsreiter. “Joan is a member of Good Shephard Parish in Menomonee Falls, and holds a master of arts degree from Saint Francis Seminary. She has worked in Catholic schools, Christian formation and prison ministry. Recently, she completed a certificate program in restorative justice to support and facilitate small group circles, like the Family Circles of Support. The other co-facilitator is Dante Martin, who works as a community health care worker and a violence interrupter.”
At the beginning of Advent, the combined teams began meeting through Zoom to develop the online version of Family Support Circles. Because theses circles are done virtually, they can extend beyond the boundaries of Milwaukee into other regions of the state. The number of participants will only be limited to Zoom’s group limits.
“At this point, the greatest challenge is to spread the word about this program,” said Kremsreiter. “The faith-based groups, probation and parole agents, Project Return and all the other community organizations are helping to spread the word.”
The circles are scheduled for the first Monday of each month. They begin at 6:30 p.m. and continue until 8 p.m. Amanda Smit of the Project Return Staff is coordinating the efforts. She can be contacted at 414-418-7312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The meeting ID is 924 0880 3648 and the password is 337714.