Restorative Justice: A Conceptual Framework


  • Jennifer J. Llewellyn, B.A. M.A. (
  • Robert Howse, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toronto and Visiting Professor, University of Michigan Law School (

Summary of the Paper:

This study, Restorative Justice: A Conceptual Framework, prepared for the Law Commission of Canada by Jennifer Llewellyn and Robert Howse, delves into the theoretical underpinnings and practical implications of restorative justice. It discusses how restorative justice diverges from traditional retributive approaches by focusing on healing, reconciliation, and community involvement rather than on punishment. The framework presented emphasizes the importance of restoring relationships and community cohesion following criminal acts. It critiques the traditional justice system’s focus on punishment and its ineffectiveness in addressing the broader social and relational impacts of crime. The paper is an academic contribution that synthesizes discussions from a roundtable on restorative justice hosted by the Law Commission of Canada, incorporating feedback from various scholars and practitioners in the field.

The paper details the historical development of restorative justice and contrasts it with traditional retributive and corrective justice models. It argues that restorative justice, which focuses on repairing relationships and addressing social inequalities, is not a new concept but a return to historical justice practices that involve the community in resolving conflicts.

Key elements of restorative justice highlighted in the document include:

  1. Historical Context: The paper explores how justice in history has moved away from community-based, restorative practices towards a retributive model centered on state control and punishment. This shift is shown to have been influenced more by political and power dynamics rather than efficacy in addressing crime.
  2. Conceptual Framework: Restorative justice is presented as fundamentally concerned with restoring social relationships and establishing social equality. This involves addressing not only the immediate harm caused by criminal acts but also the underlying social and relational contexts that contribute to such behaviors.
  3. Global Perspectives: Examples from various cultures, including African and Japanese justice practices, are discussed to illustrate how restorative justice principles are universally applicable yet adaptable to different social and cultural contexts. These examples emphasize the importance of community involvement and the aim of restoring harmony rather than merely punishing the offender.
  4. Practical Application: The document calls for a reevaluation of modern justice systems, advocating for a shift towards restorative practices that can more effectively address the needs of victims, offenders, and the wider community. This shift requires rethinking the fundamental assumptions about justice and crime in contemporary legal systems.
  5. Theoretical Distinctions: Restorative justice is differentiated from other theories by its focus on relationships and social equity, contrasting with the punitive focus of retributive justice and the individual focus of corrective justice.

Overall, the paper argues for a paradigm shift in justice practices, from punitive to restorative, to better address the complexities of crime and its impacts on society. It presents restorative justice not as a mere alternative to existing systems but as a necessary evolution to achieve true justice and social harmony.

  • Restorative Justice as a Conceptual Shift: The framework emphasizes that restorative justice is not just an alternative method but a fundamental shift in understanding justice. It involves a move away from traditional retributive systems towards approaches that aim to repair harm, restore relationships, and address the underlying causes of crime.
  • Focus on Relationships: A novel insight in the framework is the emphasis on restoring and transforming relationships rather than simply returning to a previous state or compensating for harm. This includes the relationships between the victim, the offender, and the community, which are all seen as integral to the justice process.
  • Integration of Community and Societal Values: The document highlights the importance of integrating community values and societal expectations into the justice process. This approach is rooted in the belief that justice processes should reflect and reinforce the values and norms of the communities they serve.
  • Addressing Power Imbalances: A critical insight is the framework’s focus on addressing power imbalances during the restorative process. This involves ensuring that all parties, especially victims and marginalized groups, have a voice and that their rights and dignity are respected throughout the process.
  • Challenges and Limits: The framework also discusses the challenges and limitations of implementing restorative justice, such as the difficulty in achieving true restoration in cases of severe harm or where parties are not willing to participate. It also critically examines the potential of restorative justice to replace or function within existing legal systems.
  • Practical Application and Evaluation: It proposes methods for applying restorative justice principles in various contexts and offers criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of restorative practices. This includes looking at how well these practices meet the needs of all stakeholders and contribute to long-term positive outcomes for individuals and communities.
  • Recognition of Non-material Harms: Corrective justice expands the notion of harm beyond the material losses (like property or money), acknowledging that wrongdoing often infringes on intangible rights and personal dignities.
  • Limitations of Compensatory Damages: While corrective justice employs compensatory damages as a way to address these non-material harms, it ironically exposes the limitations of its own principle. It operates on the premise that transferring value from the wrongdoer to the victim restores equality, which is particularly complex and potentially illogical when dealing with non-material harms.
  • Failures of Material Compensation: The method of transferring material compensation to account for non-material losses is seen as inadequate because it does not necessarily change the victim’s situation or address the deeper impact of the wrongdoing.
  • Quest for Equality: Corrective justice is fundamentally concerned with achieving a form of equality between the victim and the wrongdoer. However, the use of material compensation to achieve this equality is critiqued for not truly addressing the relational or social imbalances caused by the wrongdoing.
  • Comparison with Restorative Justice: The text contrasts corrective justice with restorative justice, noting that the latter focuses on restoring relationships rather than just compensating for losses. Restorative justice is presented as more capable of addressing the broader impacts of wrongdoing by focusing on social and relational restoration.
  • Context-Dependent Nature of Restorative Justice: The text highlights that restorative justice does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all model due to its inherently contextual nature. It emphasizes that while certain elements are commonly found in restorative practices (like involvement of all parties, addressing harms, and voluntary participation), these elements themselves do not suffice to define or guarantee successful restorative justice.
  • Absence of a Standard Model: The lack of a universal archetype for restorative justice underscores the difficulty in creating a standardized evaluation framework. This is pivotal because it points to the necessity of tailoring evaluation methods to specific contexts rather than applying a uniform standard across diverse situations.
  • Evaluation Based on Restoration of Relationships: A key insight is that the success of a restorative process should be judged by its results—specifically, its effectiveness in restoring relationships and addressing the harms caused by conflicts or wrongdoings. This means the distinction between a mere restorative intention and a successful restorative outcome is crucial; a process that does not lead to actual restoration is considered ineffective.
  • Critical Role of Outcomes: The document stresses that the ultimate evaluation of restorative justice practices hinges on their outcomes. This is based on the principle articulated by Bianchi, likened to judging a tree by its fruit, indicating that the aesthetics or structure of the justice process (whether it appears robust or weak) is less important than the results it produces in terms of restoration and reconciliation.
  • Implications for Restorative Justice Systems: It argues for a results-oriented approach to evaluating restorative justice, distinct from traditional justice systems that might focus more on procedural correctness or punitive measures. The emphasis on outcomes challenges conventional justice metrics and redirects focus towards the tangible benefits and reparative effects of restorative practices.


The conclusion underscores the substantial institutional overhaul necessary to fully embrace the ideals of restorative justice within the justice system. Key agendas for research and policy development include:

  1. Integration into Existing Justice Processes:
    • Transitioning to restorative justice involves intricate adjustments across processes, institutions, and roles. This entails embedding restorative approaches at all stages of criminal proceedings, including preventative policing, prosecutorial discretion, and sentencing practices, tailored to specific contexts.
    • Examination of how existing legal frameworks, particularly constitutional rights of the accused, influence the feasibility of restorative practices and whether re-evaluation is needed to accommodate both restorative and conventional approaches.
  2. Cross-Cultural Justice Understandings:
    • Restorative justice facilitates cross-cultural dialogue on justice, challenging cultural relativism. However, such dialogue remains essential to align restoration with the diverse moral intuitions of wrongdoers and victims.
    • Advocacy for a policy process involving extensive public consultation and dialogue, reflecting Canada’s cultural diversity, to address underlying perceptions of punishment and involve both wrongdoers and victims.
  3. Normative Psychology Research:
    • While restorative frameworks presuppose human needs related to restoration, empirical research is crucial to discerning effective restoration methods in specific contexts.
    • Re-evaluation of existing evidence on overcoming victimization and guilt/shame through a restorative lens, emphasizing the ideal of societal equality in relational dynamics.
  4. Resource Implications and Social Support:
    • Examination of the relationship between restorative justice and broader societal resource distribution, equality of opportunity, and social outcomes.
    • Critical analysis of resource implications necessitated by restorative justice, emphasizing the potential reorientation of societal priorities from punishment to empowerment.

In essence, while the articulation of a restorative conceptual framework is significant, its realization demands systemic institutional reform, cross-cultural engagement, psychological reassessment, and strategic reallocation of societal resources toward empowerment-oriented approaches.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Overview
    • Justice in History
    • Contemporary Restorative Ideas
    • Origins of Restorative Justice
  3. A Theory of Restorative Justice
    • A Question of Justice
    • Defining Restorative Justice
    • Restorative Justice: A Theory of Justice
    • Restitution
    • Corrective Justice
    • Retributive Justice
    • Restorative Justice
  4. Theory in Practice
    • Victims/Sufferers of Wrong
    • Wrongdoers
    • Community
    • Restorative Process
    • Elements of Restorative Justice Practice
    • Encounter
    • Rights Protection – Addressing Power Imbalances
    • Outcome
    • Evaluation
  5. The Limits of Restorative Justice: Promise, Possibility, and Problems
    • Scope of Restorative Justice
    • Challenges for Restorative Justice
    • Is Restoration Possible Where One or More Parties is Absent?
    • Deterrence, Social Protection, and the Limits of a Purely Restorative System
    • Whose Idea of Restoration?
  6. Current Programs
  7. Agents of Restorative Justice
    • Restorative justice within a dual system
    • State and Community as Agents of Restorative Justice
    • Developing Restorative Processes
  8. Conclusion: The Road to Restorative Justice – Getting from Here to There