Restorative justice grew out of a number of reform movements of the past 35 years: the informal justice movement, the victim rights movement and the restitution/diversion movement (designed to alleviate the burden put on the judicial system by increasingly incarcerative responses to crime). As its antecedents did, restorative justice has challenged assumptions about how the criminal justice system should function. Some of these conceptual issues include:

  • Rights and responsibilities. The traditional criminal justice system defines and seeks to protect individuals' rights through formal, adversarial processes. Restorative justice places a high value on individuals voluntarily assuming responsibilities and seeking to resolve conflict through informal processes.
  • Norm clarification. Criminal justice clarifies and upholds norms through enforcement of laws. Restorative justice relies more on conversations about norms in the context of specific instances of wrongdoing and the resulting harm.
  • Fairness. Criminal justice seeks fairness through procedural protections. Restorative justice focuses on satisfaction of the parties that justice was achieved.
  • Discretion. Criminal justice gives a great deal of discretion to police, prosecutors and judges to decide how cases should be handled. Restorative justice seeks to be guided by the interests and desires of the parties.
  • Due process. How does restorative justice provide due process protections to the parties, particularly rights such as the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and protection against coercion, and the right to assistance of counsel.
  • Equal protection. What assurances are there that restorative justice program can even-handedly administer justice without regard to race, gender, religion, national origin, social standing, etc.?
  • Victims' rights. Are the interests of victims better met in restorative or traditional criminal justice processes? How are those rights balanced against the rights of those accused or convicted of commiting crimes against them? 
  • Proportionality. A principle of criminal justice is that similar offenses deserve similar punishments. How important is that in restorative programs?