What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative Justice, while not a new phenomenon, is relatively new to the North American justice system. Rooted in ancient tradition and wisdom of New Zealand, restorative practices have found their way into main stream American justice. To learn more about the origins of restorative justice, click here.

Restorative justice seeks to put things right after an offense has been committed by focusing on harms and needs, addressing obligations, using inclusive practices, and involving stakeholders such as victims, offenders, and communities. There are many variations of these practices which makes a single definition difficult. However, Howard Zehr attempts to create one in The Little Book of Restorative Justice:
“Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”
While traditional retributive justice seeks to hold an offender accountable by punishing the person, restorative justice holds the offender accountable by helping him or her understand the impact the action has had on other people and helping the individual to repair the harm that has been done.

Restorative Justice is not...

  • Primarily concerned about forgiveness or reconciliation.
    • Restorative Practices provide context where either might happen, but this is not a primary focus or concern. The primary concern of restorative justice is to repair the harm that has been done.
  • Primarily designed to reduce recidivism or repeating offenses
    • There are good reasons to believe that restorative practices will reduce offending, but this is not the main motivation. It is the right thing to do. Victims’ needs should be addressed, and those affected should be involved in the process.
  • A particular program or a blueprint
    • Restorative justice is not a map. There is no pure or ideal method. The principles of restorative justice can be seen as a compass pointing a direction to go.
  • Primarily intended for minor offenses or for first-time offenders
    • Experience has shown that restorative approaches may have the greatest impact in more severe cases.
  • A replacement for the legal system
    • Restorative justice is not a panacea. Some form of Western legal system is still needed as a guardian to basic human rights. Neither is restorative justice a replacement for traditional punishments. It can be used in conjunction with or parallel to prison sentences.
  •  The opposite of retribution
    • The common goal of both retribution and restorative justice is to vindicate through reciprocity or “evening the score.” However, retributive justice believes that pain will vindicate while restorative justice argues that true vindication will come with acknowledgment of wrong-doing and the offender repairing that harm.