Howard Zehr’s book: The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Howard Zehr’s seminal 2002 work The Little Book of Restorative Justice provides a foundational yet accessible introduction to the principles and practices of restorative justice. Zehr, often considered a pioneer in the modern restorative justice movement, manages to present a comprehensive overview of this alternative framework in just over 100 pages. The book succinctly covers the basic philosophy of restorative justice, key differences from the traditional legal system, emerging practices, and common critiques and misconceptions.

At its core, restorative justice views crime and wrongdoing through a different lens than the traditional justice system. Rather than defining crime primarily as lawbreaking and a violation against the state, it starts by seeing crime as a violation against people and relationships. Consequently, restorative justice is concerned first with the harms caused by wrongdoing. It emphasizes meeting the needs of victims, holding offenders truly accountable to make amends, and involving all stakeholders in the process of justice. The criminal justice system, in contrast, is centered on establishing blame and guilt, assigning punishment, and taking discretion over the process out of the hands of those most directly impacted.

“Restorative justice is respect. If we cannot see the humanity in those who have harmed us, we cannot foster justice, resolution, or healing.”

Zehr argues that justice systems rooted in restorative principles offer a better way forward that can more adequately meet needs of victims, communities, and offenders alike. Victims require information, truth-telling, restitution, vindication, and opportunities for healing and recovery that the current system rarely provides. Offenders are better able to understand the real impact of their actions and accept responsibility when given the chance to come face-to-face with those they have harmed. And communities suffer when justice is defined as strictly an impersonal, state function isolated from the relationships and social connections which are essential to community wellbeing.

The Little Book of Restorative Justice lays out guiding principles, core values, and common practices that animate a restorative approach. Zehr surveys models such as victim-offender conferencing, family group conferencing, peacemaking circles, and victim impact panels. He sets forth a flexible continuum to evaluate the “restorativeness” of any given practice. By outlining an alternative set of guiding questions focused on stakeholder needs, harms, and obligations, Zehr provides a robust framework for rethinking justice, whether applied in criminal cases, schools, social work, international diplomacy or community development. The book remains a seminal introduction to this influential framework transforming understandings of wrongdoing and justice across the globe.

Chapter 1: An Overview

This chapter explains the basic principles and goals of restorative justice as an alternative framework for responding to crime and wrongdoing. Zehr contrasts restorative justice with the western legal system. He argues that the legal system is overly focused on establishing guilt, assigning blame, and punishing offenders. It neglects victims’ needs and fails to encourage offender accountability and rehabilitation. Restorative justice views crime first as a violation of people and relationships, creating obligations to make amends. It aims to involve victims, offenders and community members in a process that addresses harms, needs and causes. Restorative justice is not a specific program but more a compass to guide communities. It expands the circle of stakeholders and prefers collaborative, inclusive processes. The chapter lays out common misconceptions, explains the emphasis on needs and roles, and outlines the simple basis of restorative justice in obligations to redress harms.

Chapter 2: Restorative Principles

This chapter delves deeper into the principles and key concepts underpinning restorative justice. It examines the assumptions about interconnectedness and corresponding obligations that arise from harms. Three central pillars of restorative justice are discussed: focus on harms and needs, obligations to make right, and engagement of stakeholders. Five core principles are explained: 1) focus on harms and resulting needs, 2) address obligations, 3) involve stakeholders, 4) use participatory processes, and 5) aim to heal and put right wrongs. Zehr explores the values of interconnectedness, respect, compassion and “mutual concern” underlying restorative approaches. He provides a working definition of restorative justice centered on repairing harm through inclusive processes. The goals and guiding questions of restorative justice are outlined, along with 10 signposts for doing justice restoratively.

“Ultimately, restorative justice provides an alternative framework for thinking about wrongdoing. It is an invitation to a conversation so that we may support and learn from each other. It is a reminder that all of us are indeed interconnected.”

Chapter 3: Restorative Practices

This chapter surveys the major restorative justice practices, especially victim-offender conferencing, family group conferencing and peacemaking circles. Zehr explains that most models involve an encounter or facilitated dialogue between stakeholders. Preparation is key, and participation must be voluntary. Some similarities and differences between models are highlighted. Conferences expand the circle of participants beyond just direct victims and offenders. Circles incorporate broader community involvement. Despite variations, core restorative principles remain constant. Zehr describes a continuum of practices from fully restorative to non-restorative. Even partially restorative approaches have value as components in the justice process. But pseudo programs using the rhetoric of restorative justice without adhering to its principles are problematic. Zehr cautions against co-optation and dilution of restorative justice as it becomes more mainstream. Adaptations should remain true to the essence and spirit of restorative philosophy.

Chapter 4: Is it Either/Or?

This chapter tackles some common binary assumptions about restorative justice, arguing for a both/and approach recognizing complexity. Zehr contends that restorative justice should not be seen as the absolute opposite of retribution. Both affirm a moral intuition about justice and the need to right wrongs. Zehr also challenges setting up a complete either/or dichotomy between criminal justice and restorative justice. He envisions restorative justice on a continuum alongside and ideally transforming the legal system. Just as restorative justice has limits, the legal system also has important strengths, especially in protecting basic human rights. A solely restorative approach may not be realistic or necessarily desirable. But the principles and questions of restorative justice can move our justice system farther toward the restorative end of the spectrum. The chapter concludes with the metaphor of restorative justice as a river, reminding that the modern restorative justice field flows from diverse tributaries of indigenous practice, ancient wisdom, faith traditions, social movements and more. Dialogue and diversity strengthen the restorative current.

Appendix: Fundamental Principles

This appendix elaborates 12 fundamental principles of restorative justice. The first principle covers the relational nature of crime, and the resulting needs of victims, offenders and communities. The second principle discusses the obligations that arise – obligations of offenders to make amends, and obligations of communities to both victims and offenders. The third principle explores the restorative aims of healing, righting wrongs, and addressing causes of harm. It speaks to providing opportunities for repentance, forgiving and reintegration of victims and offenders alike. There is also a principle underscoring the value of victim-offender dialogue, where appropriate. Other principles address the role of community and the state in the process. Several important standards speak to fair and unintended outcomes, the priority of victim restitution over state-imposed sanctions, use of least restrictive interventions, and avoidance of discrimination. The set of 12 principles provides a strong synopsis of key concepts, obligations and best practices central to restorative justice.


Over 20 years since its initial publication, Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice retains its importance as a seminal work in the field. As restorative initiatives continue spreading into new arenas like social work, counseling, schools and community development, Zehr’s concise outline of foundational principles and practices remains an impactful guide. The book offers a vision of justice centered on healing and reparation rather than just punishment. Its commonsense approach recognizes that true justice requires making things as right as possible for victims, holding offenders accountable in meaningful ways, and involving the community in this restorative process.

By articulating an alternative set of guiding questions and outlining core restorative philosophy, Zehr empowers readers to re-examine assumptions about crime, wrongdoing, and justice. The Little Book of Restorative Justice authoritatively synthesizes key concepts and developments in the restorative justice field. Zehr effectively critiques the limits of legal justice while cautioning against simplistic dichotomies. Throughout, the book thoughtfully balances high-level theory with on-the-ground practice. Two decades later, The Little Book of Restorative Justice remains essential reading for understanding the emergence of this influential social movement and grasping its humane vision for responding to wrongdoing by healing harms, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships.

Summary of Appendix: Fundamental Principles of Restorative Justice

1.0 Crime as a Violation of Relationships

Zehr’s paradigm starts with a simple yet profound shift: crime is not just breaking a law but a violation of people and their relationships. This view naturally extends the circle of affected individuals beyond the immediate victim, encompassing family, witnesses, and even the community at large. Restoration, in this context, becomes not just an act but a continuum that addresses the myriad needs and harms experienced by all stakeholders.

1.2 Stakeholder-Centric Justice

While traditionally the state has been the primary actor in administering justice, Zehr argues that the key stakeholders are the victims, offenders, and the community. Their roles and contributions differ based on the nature and severity of the offense but are integral to the process of healing and reconciliation. The state’s role is minimized to functions like investigation and safety assurance.

2.0 The Notion of Obligations

Zehr presents a nuanced view of obligations that arise from criminal acts. These obligations are geared towards making amends and are primarily aimed at restoring the victim and the community. The traditional notion of punishment is challenged; the emphasis is not on pain but on constructive restoration.

2.1 Victim-Empowerment

Zehr emphasizes the empowerment of victims to define these obligations. Offenders are given the opportunity to understand the extent of the harm they’ve caused, thereby encouraging them to voluntarily take responsibility. This framework stresses voluntary participation, and obligations such as restitution are prioritized over state-imposed fines.

2.2 Community’s Role

The community is not a passive observer. It bears responsibilities to support victims, address broader welfare concerns, and help in the offender’s reintegration. By playing an active role, the community can confront systemic issues that often perpetuate crime.

3.0 Restorative Justice as Healing

At its core, Zehr’s model is geared towards healing and setting things right. The needs and safety of the victim are the starting points, and the process is crafted to maximize their input. Offenders are also supported, acknowledged as individuals often harmed themselves, and encouraged to change.

3.2 Dialogic Exchange

Restorative justice promotes a dialogue between victims and offenders. While face-to-face encounters may not always be feasible or desirable, the model emphasizes mutual agreement and informed consent, offering room for remorse and reconciliation.

3.4 Community-Centric Justice

Justice isn’t just a legal construct; it belongs to the community. This viewpoint encourages community members to be part of the justice process, making use of local resources and aiming for lasting systemic change.

3.5 Mindfulness of Outcomes

Justice in this framework is constantly reflective, evaluating the intended and unintended consequences of its approaches. It resists the commodification of restorative principles for punitive ends and promotes fairness through tailored support rather than uniform outcomes.