Part of this article was published in the Journal of Housing & Community Development, Nov/Dec. 2000.


A Hawai'i Public Housing Community Implements

Conferencing: A Restorative Approach to Conflict Resolution

Lorenn Walker, J.D., M.P.H.*

I. Introduction

It was a beautiful tropical day at Kalihi Valley Homes, a public housing development in Honolulu. The beauty of Hawai’i, however, does not ease its often-terrible Honolulu traffic. After spending an hour traveling only 10 miles one warm Sunday afternoon, his only day off, a burly young man leaped from his car waving his fist at the driver of a double-parked truck blocking his parking space. "Hey man, who do you think you are parking in front of my space? Get the hell out of here you jerk" he yelled as he pounded his fist on the truck’s hood. With equal passion the driver of the truck, who had been drinking a few beers at another resident’s afternoon party, jumped out and confronted the irate man. "What are you doing you idiot!" The two ended up exchanging punches and the police quickly responded arresting the burly man for assault. Although fictitious, this is a composite of a typical fight at Kalihi Valley Homes (KVH).


In an effort to find effective alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system and to include the community in trying to "make things

right" after wrongdoing, KVH implemented a family group conferencing (conferencing) program. The Real Justice model of conferencing was used. The program was part of large federal drug elimination program administered through the federal Housing and Urban Development office. Conferencing is an effective restorative practice for dealing with crime and conflict when people admit their wrongdoing. Research demonstrates that conferencing reduces recidivism (Hyndman, et al., 1996).

II. The Restorative Nature of Conferencing

Conferencing is a restorative justice practice. It was introduced at KVH to "teach housing residents a peaceful conflict resolution method that can decrease their future criminal behavior by increasing their sense of empowerment and morality." Restorative justice is an "alternative approach to criminal justice" which began evolving about 15 years ago in response to the ineffectiveness of our current justice system (Pranis, 1996). Our current justice system is based primarily on retributive values where: "Crime is a violation of the state, defined by lawbreaking and guilt. Justice determines blame and administers pain in a contest between the offender and the state directed by systematic rules." Restorative justice is based on values that hold "Crime is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victims, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance (Zehr, 1990).

Conferencing is mainly based on ideas from a traditional Maori practice in New Zealand (Maxwell, 1996). Other indigenous groups including the Hawaiians, Native Americans and Native Canadians have similar conflict resolution practices (Shook, 1985, Schiff, 1998, & Stuart, 1996).

  1. The Conferencing Process
  2. Conference participants sit in a circle. Participants include victims, offenders, supporters of the victims and offenders (family and/or friends), and the affected community. Conferences are facilitated by a neutral third party who does not participate in decision making. There are basically four phases to a conference. First, the offender admits what she did, explains what she was thinking at the time and since it happened, and who she thinks has been effected by her actions. Second, the other individuals in the group discuss how they have been affected by the offender’s behavior. Third, the group discusses and decides what can be done to repair the harm to make things right. Finally, a written agreement is entered which all participants sign and the conference ends with the participants eating together–a ceremonial breaking of bread.

    At KVH, victims may be housing residents hurt by other residents or non-residents harmed at the project by an offender resident. Housing residents may also be victims when common areas of the project are vandalized. In one incident a group of KVH resident children partially destroyed a Samoan "fale" (a palm leaf covered outdoor pavilion) built on the grounds for residents use. A conference was held as a diversion from normal eviction processes when the children admitted their wrongdoing. The victims at the conference were an elder housing resident whose idea it was to build the fale and two other residents who used the fale. Several members of their families and a few of their friends attended as their supporters. The offending children and their families also attended the conference.

    The facilitator of the conference was the housing manager. She began the conference by explaining that its purpose was "to discuss the way people have been affected by the wrongdoing" and for the group "to try and find ways to repair the harm." She explained that the conference was voluntary, but if the offenders did not participate the case may go on to an eviction hearing. The offending children spoke next admitting that they vandalized the fale. Next the victims and their supporters described how the damaged fale affected them, e.g. they could no longer enjoy sitting under it’s shady palm fonds and they were both angry and hurt by its destruction. Finally, the families of the offending children explained how they too were affected by the bad behavior of the children.

    After the group discussed how they had been affected by the wrongdoing, they collectively decided what could be done to "promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance." The group decided that the children and their parents would repair the fale. The children agreed to never vandalize the fale again and to intervene and encourage other children when they saw them vandalizing any property at the housing community. The facilitator prepared a written agreement that all the participants signed. The group then shared some cake, cookies and juice together. It has been about two years now since the fale was vandalized. It was repaired, remains intact and is used by many residents.

  3. Conferencing is Effective Crime Prevention
  4. Conferencing is a powerful crime prevention strategy. First, by taking responsibility for their behavior, offenders recognize that they are in control of their actions, which is the foundation for developing healthy self-efficacy. (Bandura, 1977) Second, by hearing from the true community affected and harmed by their wrongdoing, offenders have the opportunity to develop empathy which is an important quality for preventing repeat offenses especially for youth. (Goldstein and Pentz, 1984). Third, because the group uses consensus in decision making, moral development is more likely than in autocratic decision making practices. (Kholberg, 1964 and 1969). Finally, offenders experience reintegrative shame at conferences. (Braithwaite, 1989). Because their supporters also attend the conference, which focuses on bad behavior, not one’s bad essence or nature, the offender continues to be an accepted member of the community. This makes it more likely that the offender will conform to community standards. This communitarianism aspect of the conference is necessary for preventing repeat offenses. (Braithwaite, 1989).

  5. Conclusion

KVH has implemented conferencing as a standard conflict resolution practice. KVH has discovered that in spite of wrongdoing and harm, people can come together in a positive way and work toward to repairing the harm. This process leaves people feeling optimistic. Optimism is vital for individuals to develop resiliency and coping skills. (Seligman, 1990). Conferencing is a process that leaves people feeling hopeful. It is a process that allows victims, offenders, and the community to heal and move on after they have experienced harmful consequences of criminal or other bad behavior. Conferencing is a group process that can build community out of wrongdoing.


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