From Prof. James R. "Chip" Coldren:
Restorative Justice is a philosophical guide for how individuals, communities, and society might respond to conflict or harms experienced, including delinquency and crime. According to Howard Zehr, one of our country's leading proponents of restorative justice, this approach "expands the circle of stakeholders - those with a stake or standing in the event or the case - beyond just the government and the offender to include victims and community members also (Zehr, H., 2002, The Little Book of Restorative Justice, page 13). In other words, according to restorative justice the best way to repair harms and protect citizens after a wrongful or harmful act has been conducted is to involve as many of those affected, directly and indirectly, in the assessment of the harms, the determination of accountability for harms done, the punishments, restitutions and reparations desired by those affected, and the development of competencies in offenders or wrongdoers to guard against repeat harmful behaviors. It is not sufficient, and not recommended, to have the government act as the primary finder of fact and punisher, with little input from victims and others affected by crime and delinquency. Restorative justice seeks a more complete, inclusive, and empowering approach through which all in a community who wish to take part in responses to crime and delinquency, and who have responsibility for community safety and well-being, have opportunities to do so that address the needs of victims, offenders, and community members.
For example, in the wake of harmful, delinquent, or criminal acts, victims should have the ability to pursue questions about why the act happened, and what has happened in the aftermath (e.g., in terms of offender accountability); this might require direct access to offenders. The victim also deserves an opportunity to explain, even to offenders, how the harmful act affected them directly; to regain some semblance of control over their lives and their property; and the victim deserves some form of vindication, perhaps through apologies, restitution, or some other action by offenders. Offenders should be encouraged to acknowledge full accountability for offenses and harms (something that is avoided sometimes in the traditional, adversarial, justice system), and restorative justice does not accept punishment as a form of accountability. Punishment, in fact, can allow offenders to avoid full accountability (e.g., "do the crime, do the time," with no apology or restitution to a victim). In additional, achieving a change in offender behavior often requires investment in competency building (training, education, cognitive therapy, volunteer work) for offenders. The community also should receive attention to needs that arise from crimes (e.g., fear, feelings of powerlessness), and should work toward greater mutual accountability so that offending behaviors decline. The restorative justice approach asserts that communities are responsible for both victims and offenders, and should work more closely and collaboratively to create peaceful and healthy environments for community members.
Restorative Justice is not 'soft on crime,' and is not 'anti-punishment.' Restorative justice suggests that we use our experiences, resources, and social capital wisely so that victims, offenders, and community members all have opportunities to help prevent harms, and to heal from harms in the most peaceful ways possible.