(Adjusted from the Nova Scotia RJ FAQ and additional sources)

Restorative justice is a way of thinking about crime and conflict. It is not a particular practice or type of program, but rather a philosophy, or a set of principles. The United Nations Working Group on Restorative Justice defines it in the following way: a process whereby parties with a stake in a particular offence resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future.

Restorative justice processes worldwide are premised on the following principles:

  • holding the offender accountable in a more meaningful way
  • repairing the harm caused by the offence
  • achieving a sense of healing for the victim and the community
  • reintegrating the offender back into the community (when appropriate)

Restorative justice is concerned with the construction of a better society for both the present and the future. Some of the goals of restorative justice are listed below:

  • tries to repair the harm to the victim (but recognizes that it is not always possible to replace what the victim has lost)
  • aims to restore the offender to a law-abiding life
  • hopes to restore any damage sustained in the community

Victim-offender mediation occurs when victims and offenders meet face-to-face in the presence of a trained facilitator. The parties have an opportunity to talk about the crime, to express their feelings and concerns, to get answers to their questions, and to negotiate a resolution. Support people for both the victim and offender may be present, however, they do not normally participate in the discussion.

A community justice conference also involves a face-to-face meeting between the victim and offender. A family group conference, however, engages a larger group of participants, which includes the support people for both the victim and the offender, relevant professionals, the facilitator, and the investigating officer. All participants have an opportunity to talk about the crime, to express their feelings and concerns, and to get answers to their questions. All participants can also express opinions on how the offender should make amends.

A sentencing circle involves the same participants as a family group conference, as well as the presiding judge, Crown attorney, and defence counsel. As with the other models, each participant is given an equal opportunity to participate. Everyone works together to arrive at a plan for the offender which will repair the harm caused by the offence. A circle goes beyond developing a sentence for the offender, and engages the support of all participants to assist the offender in fulfilling the terms of the plan.
For more descriptions of the models used with RJV, please see our What do we Do? page.

  • The oldest practice of restorative justice, victim-offender mediation, had its roots in the Kitchener-Waterloo of Ontario in the 1970s.
  • By 1990, a NATO-supported conference was held to examine growing interest in restorative justice.
  • In 1996, New Zealand adopted legislation mandating the use of restorative practices in young offender cases.
  • Many jurisdictions, including Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and European countries have adopted restorative justice programs.

Research regarding the effectiveness of restorative justice to affect systemic change in the criminal justice system has been limited. However, there have been several important studies regarding specific restorative justice processes, such as victim-offender mediation and community justice conferencing.
The research finds the following:

  • victims who meet with their offenders are far more likely to be satisfied with the justice system’s response to their case than those who go through the normal justice process
    after meeting the offender, victims are significantly less fearful of being revictimized
  • offenders who meet with their victim are far more likely to fulfill the agreed upon restitution with regard to the victim of their crime
  • considerably fewer and less serious crimes are subsequently committed by offenders who meet their victim
  • For more articles and research on restorative justice around the world, please visit our RJ Resources page.


RJV, or any other restorative justice program, is not intended to replace the current criminal justice system. It does, however, have the potential to meet needs that are not currently being met by the existing system. For instance, the needs for healing, victim empowerment, and addressing root causes of crime may exist for any offence, regardless of its severity. In serious cases, where the loss to the victim is more profound, restorative justice has been found to be more meaningful for victims, community members, and offenders.
It’s important to remember that restorative justice can be used alongside the criminal justice system and is not always used as diversion. There is also no guarantee that participation in a restorative justice process will result in a ‘lighter’ sentence than the normal court process would.

Restorative justice offers a more demanding, active, and clear opportunity for offenders to be held directly accountable to the victim and the community they have harmed. Rather than being soft on crime, restorative justice requires the offender to behave more responsibly by making amends to the victim and community.
Some would suggest that it is more difficult for an offender to meet face-to-face with the victim of their crime than to proceed through the criminal justice system. In the traditional system offenders are not required to accept responsibility for their actions, are not held accountable for their actions, and are not required to explain their actions. Many offenders proceed through the system with a lawyer who speaks on their behalf.


Participation in the restorative justice is completely voluntary for all participants. One of the primary goals of restorative justice is to increase victim satisfaction in the system by giving them an active role in the justice process. Every effort will therefore be made to provide the victim with the information, preparation, and support they need in order to participate in a restorative justice process. If a victim does not want to participate in a restorative justice process but still consents to the case being handled by restorative justice (e.g. rather than court), there are many options on how to accommodate their needs. They could write a statement explaining the impact the offence/wrongdoing has had on them, they could record a video and explain the same thing, or they could send someone to represent them, such as a family member or friend. Community members could participate on their behalf and speak to the impact the crime has had on them.

Certain offences, such as drug offences, are often called “victimless” crimes. They do, however, have a dramatic effect on an entire community. Most, if not all, offences have a negative impact on at least one person. In cases where there is no identifiable victim, representatives from the community in general, or a citizen’s group, could participate in a restorative justice process and speak about the effect the crime has had on the community. Family members of the offender may also speak to the impacts of crime on them.


The term community, as used in restorative justice, is not necessarily a physical or geographic region. Community is defined as the “community of the incident” including:

  • family members
  • key support people
  • significant others for each party who have been impacted by the offence

Yes and with great success. Large urban centres often have the benefit of having a more comprehensive network of resources to which offenders and victims can be referred.

Restorative justice focuses on identifying the underlying causes which may have led to the offender committing a crime. The following conditions are important:

  • identifying key support people who can assist the offender in addressing some of the personal issues which led to the offence
  • raising awareness within a community about the conditions in that community which might have led to the offence
  • referring both the offender and victim to appropriate community resources to deal with issues that are identified in the process

Restorative justice provides an opportunity for the justice system to start working more collaboratively with other service providers, such as schools, health organizations, child protection agencies, and other social service agencies, in an effort to address the underlying causes of crime.

There are quite a few misunderstandings about restorative justice and the roles of practitioners (e.g. we’re often compared to probation officers, counselors and mediators, none of which are accurate and can be harmful if believed/applied), so we want to distinguish these two related but distinct fields. The following excerpt is from a document published in 2000 called “Guidelines for Victim-Sensitive Victim-Offender Mediation: Restorative Justice Through Dialogue” by Mark Umbreit and Jean Greenwood (available here).

How Is Victim-Offender Mediation Different from Other Kinds of Mediation?

Mediation is being used in an increasing number of conflict situations, such as divorce and child custody cases, community disputes, commercial disputes, and other civil court-related conflicts. In such settings, the parties are called “disputants,” and the assumption made is that both are contributing to the conflict and therefore both need to compromise to reach a settlement. Often, mediation in these cases focuses heavily upon reaching a settlement, with less emphasis upon discussing the full impact of the conflict on the disputants’ lives.

In victim-offender mediation, the involved parties are not “disputants.” Generally, one party has clearly committed a criminal offense and has admitted doing so, whereas the other has clearly been victimized. Therefore, the issue of guilt or innocence is not mediated. Nor is there an expectation that crime victims compromise or request less than what they need to restore their losses. Although many other types of mediation are largely “settlement-driven,” victim-offender mediation is primarily “dialogue-driven,” with emphasis upon victim empowerment, offender accountability, and restoration of losses. Most VOM sessions (more than 95 percent) result in a signed restitution agreement. This agreement, however, is secondary to the importance of the initial dialogue between the parties. This dialogue addresses emotional and informational needs of victims that are central to both the empowerment of the victims and the development of victim empathy in the offenders, which can help to prevent criminal behavior in the future. Research has consistently found that the restitution agreement is less important to crime victims than the opportunity to express their feelings about the offense directly to the offenders (Schneider, 1986). Restorative impact is strongly related to the creation of a safe place for dialogue between the crime victim and the offender.

For people new to the concept of restorative justice, it is often helpful to point out what restorative justice is not (from Howard Zehr’s “The Little Book of Restorative Justice”):

  • RJ is not primarily about forgiveness or reconciliation – we do not encourage victims to forgive or reconcile with those who have committed an offence.
  • RJ is not mediation – an encounter is not always appropriate between a victim and offender, but even when an encounter occurs, the term “mediation” does not apply because its philosophy holds that both parties are on a level moral playing field, and in the case of crime or other wrongdoings that lead to restorative justice, there is a clear acknowledgment that the action was wrong.
  • RJ is not primarily designed to reduce recidivism or repeating offences – although there is a great deal of evidence that shows RJ reduces recidivism quite well, this is just a positive byproduct. RJ is what we consider “the right thing to do” – victims needs should be addressed, offenders should be encouraged to take responsibility and be held to true accountability, those affected by an offense should be involved in the process, regardless of whether offenders catch on and reduce their offending.
  • RJ is not a particular program or blueprint – there is no pure model of RJ, and every program must be built based on the needs, strengths and resources of the community it is used in.
  • RJ is not primarily intended for comparatively minor offenses or for first-time offenders – although it’s often easier to get support for RJ when it’s used for comparatively minor offenses like shoplifting, experience and research show that RJ often has the greatest impact in more severe cases. Furthermore, the principles of RJ are essentially designed for more serious cases.
  • RJ is not a new or North American development – although the modern-day North American movement of RJ began in the 1970s, it owes a great deal to earlier movements and a variety of cultural and religious* traditions, especially the native people of North America and New Zealand.
  • RJ is neither a panacea nor necessarily a replacement for the legal system – RJ is not an answer to all cases. We believe that crime has both a public and private dimension; while the legal system focuses on the public dimension, it simultaneously often excludes the private, personal and interpersonal dimension.
  • RJ is not necessarily an alternative to prison – RJ is not synonymous with diversion; it can be used as such, but can also be used independently of the legal system, having no effect on an offender’s trial or criminal record.