How did restorative justice start?

Restorative justice has been identified in indigenous, ancient and traditional cultures and has been used for centuries to resolve conflicts and restore relationships. However, in the modern criminal justice system, restorative justice emerged as an alternative to the western retributive justice model that focused on punishing lawbreaking offenders. The emergence of restorative justice in the modern criminal justice system can be traced back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a group of criminologists, activists, and practitioners began to challenge the prevailing view of justice as a punitive and adversarial process.

Restorative justice is not inherently synonymous with indigenous practices, and it is important to recognize that the relationship between restorative justice and indigenous traditions is complex and can carry colonial undertones for some cultures. However, many ancient and traditional cultures have long employed restorative practices to resolve conflicts and restore relationships. Here are some key restorative principles found in various ancient cultures:

1. Community Involvement:

Many traditional societies emphasize the involvement of the entire community in the justice process. This principle is evident in practices such as the hui of the Maori in New Zealand, where community gatherings are held to discuss offenses and their impacts.

2. Healing and Reconciliation:

The primary goal of restorative justice in ancient cultures is to heal and reconcile all parties involved. For instance, the Navajo Nation in the United States employs peacemaking circles to address conflicts, focusing on healing rather than punishment.

3. Victim-Centered Approach:

Ancient restorative practices prioritize the needs and voices of victims. This is seen in the traditional justice systems of African societies, where victims are given the opportunity to express their pain and have a say in the resolution process.

4. Reintegration of Offenders:

Rather than isolating offenders, many ancient cultures focus on their reintegration into the community. The Sami people in Scandinavia, for example, use restorative practices that aim to restore the offender’s relationship with the community.

5. Collective Responsibility:

In traditional societies, there is often a collective sense of responsibility for resolving conflicts. This principle is highlighted in Asian restorative practices where family and community members collectively work towards repairing harm and restoring peace.

6. Restitution and Compensation:

Providing restitution to victims is a common restorative principle. In many Latin American indigenous cultures, offenders are required to make amends by compensating the victims, thereby restoring balance and justice.

7. Spiritual and Cultural Dimensions:

Many ancient restorative practices incorporate spiritual and cultural elements. For instance, the use of rituals and ceremonies in the justice process helps to reinforce the cultural values and spiritual beliefs of the community.

Scholarly Evidence

  1. Case Studies from Indigenous Communities: Research conducted on the Maori in New Zealand, the Navajo Nation in the United States, and the Sami people in Scandinavia reveals a common thread of restorative principles in their traditional conflict resolution practices. These practices include family and community gatherings (hui, peacemaking circles, etc.) to discuss the offense, its impact, and a path forward that repairs relationships (Tauri and Morris, 1997; Yazzie, 1994).
  2. Anthropological Studies: Anthropological insights into societies such as those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America show that restorative justice mechanisms are often preferred over punitive approaches. They emphasize social harmony and the reintegration of offenders into their communities (Zehr, 2002; Sullivan and Tifft, 2006).
  3. Comparative Legal Studies: Legal scholars have drawn parallels between the principles of restorative justice and the conflict resolution mechanisms found in various indigenous legal systems, arguing that these traditional practices offer valuable lessons for contemporary justice systems (Cunneen, 2002).
  4. United Nations Endorsements: The United Nations has recognized the value of restorative justice practices, particularly those rooted in indigenous traditions, in documents such as the Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters (2002). These endorsements highlight the global relevance of restorative justice principles and their potential to contribute to more humane and effective justice systems.

Although restorative practices are evident in ancient cultures, they are distinct from the modern movement of restorative justice which emerged in North America in the 1970s. One of the earliest and most influential figures in the restorative justice movement was Howard Zehr, a criminologist and practitioner who first began to develop the concept of restorative justice in the 1970s. Zehr’s work was influenced by his experiences as a Mennonite in the United States, where he observed the principles of restorative justice in action within his own community. In the late 1970s, Zehr began to apply these principles to the criminal justice system and to advocate for a more victim-centered approach to justice.

Zehr’s work was heavily influenced by the emerging victims’ rights movement, which began to gain traction in the 1970s and 1980s. The victims’ rights movement was a response to the widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional criminal justice system, which was seen as being too focused on offenders and too dismissive of the needs and perspectives of victims. Victims’ rights advocates argued that victims should have a more prominent role in the justice process and that their needs should be prioritized over those of offenders.

The emergence of victim voices in the criminal justice system was a crucial factor in the development of restorative justice. Restorative justice emphasizes the importance of repairing the harm caused by crime and of restoring relationships between victims, offenders, and communities. In order to do this, it is necessary to involve victims in the justice process and to give them a voice in determining the outcome of the case.

One of the earliest examples of restorative justice in the modern criminal justice system was the establishment of the first official victim-offender mediation program in Kitchener, Ontario in 1977. This program was established by a group of individuals including Howard Zehr, who helped to develop the concept of victim-offender mediation as a way to bring together victims and offenders to discuss the harm that had been caused and to find ways to repair the damage. This program served as a model for similar programs across North America and helped to establish restorative justice as a viable alternative to traditional justice systems.

In the decades since the establishment of the first victim-offender mediation program, restorative justice has continued to gain momentum as a viable alternative to traditional justice systems. Restorative justice programs have been established in many jurisdictions around the world, and they have been used to address a wide range of criminal offenses, from minor property crimes to serious offenses like homicide.

The success of restorative justice programs has been attributed in part to the fact that they prioritize the needs and perspectives of victims. Restorative justice programs are designed to give victims a voice in the justice process and to allow them to participate actively in the healing and reconciliation process. By involving victims in the justice process and giving them a role in determining the outcome of the case, restorative justice programs help to restore the sense of agency and control that victims may feel they have lost as a result of the crime.


  1. Tauri and Morris (1997) and Yazzie (1994) are cited for case studies on restorative justice practices among the Maori in New Zealand, Navajo Nation in the US, and Sami people in Scandinavia.
  2. Zehr (2002) and Sullivan and Tifft (2006) are cited for anthropological insights showing restorative justice mechanisms are preferred over punitive approaches in societies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, emphasizing social harmony and offender reintegration.
  3. Cunneen (2002) is cited for comparative legal studies drawing parallels between restorative justice principles and indigenous legal systems’ conflict resolution mechanisms.
  4. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters (2002) is cited as recognizing the value of restorative justice practices rooted in indigenous traditions.


The Origins of Restorative Justice
The History of Restorative Justice
The Use of Restorative Justice around the World
The use of Restorative Practices in Ancient Cultures
Pioneers and turning points in the history of restorative justice