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What is Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is a philosophy as well as a set of principles and practices that guide decision making in instances of harm or injustice. While RJ was initially applied in the United States and other Western judicial systems in the criminal justice arena, the application of the practices and principles has expanded significantly over the past four decades. Restorative justice is grounded in the desire to address harm to relationships caused by wrongdoing. It emphasizes responding to the harms and needs of victims rather than the wrongdoing of the offender.

Restorative approaches to justice seek to engage and empower involved and impacted parties including the offenders, the victims and a broad circle of individuals from their families and communities. Therefore, the focus for a restorative approach to justice is in the answers to four questions:

Within a restorative framework, because the focus is on putting things right and, when appropriate, repairing relationships, there is a high value placed on:

  1. Broad and deep involvement of those impacted by the act - this means both individuals and the broader community;
  2. Encounter with those responsible for wrong based on the assumption that taking accountability for actions is a primary act in the overall restoration process; and
  3. Inclusion of the impacted and obligated communities - representatives of all who were harmed and all who have obligations to participate in putting things right.


While there is no uniform definition of restorative justice, some generally accepted descriptions and their authors are listed here.

Tony Marshall composed a frequently cited and still useful definition of restorative justice in 1999: "Restorative justice is a process whereby parties with a stake in a specific offence collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future." (TM 1999)

In his Little Book of Restorative Justice, published in 2002, Howard Zehr acknowledged and modified Marshall's 1999 definition this way, "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." (LBRJ, p. 37)

Several years later, Zehr sought to further clarify and articulate his understanding of the key concepts of restorative justice in the afterword of the 3rd edition of Changing Lenses (2005), where he wrote,

Restorative Justice...

  1. Focuses on harms and consequent needs. (Of victims, but also communities and offenders);
  2. Addresses obligations resulting from those harms. (Offenders' but also communities' and society's);
  3. Uses inclusive, collaborative processes;
  4. Involves those with a stake in the situation. (Victims, offenders, community members, society);
  5. Seeks to put right the wrongs. (CL 3rd ed, 2005 p. 270).

Michael L. Hadley described the connection between spirituality and restorative justice in his book, The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice (2001). "It is about doing justice as if people really mattered; it addresses the need for a vision of the good life, and the Common Good."

Sullivan and Tifft (2005) describe restorative justice as a peacemaking force that extends far beyond the justice system and in to relationships at all levels, including relationships of individuals with institutions and governments.

A succinct effort to incorporate the various definitions or restorative justice can be found at restorativejustice.org: "Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasized the harm caused by criminal behavior. When this is done using cooperative processes that include all stakeholders, transformation is possible" (Prison Fellowship International, n.d.).

Adapted from Social Work and Restorative Justice: Skills for Dialogue, Peacemaking and Reconciliation, Elizabeth Beck, PhD, Nancy Kopf, PhD, Pamela Blume Leonard, MA, Eds, Oxford University Press (forthcoming, 2010) and Restorative Justice Overview by David Anderson Hooker (unpublished).

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Disclaimer: The contents of this website are not intended to be nor should they be construed as legal advice. Although the Restorative Justice Clearinghouse (RJC) strives to provide accurate and timely information, there can be no guarantee that such information is accurate as of the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future. Further, RJC is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information.