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Framing Questions

Another way to think about restorative justice is in how it differs from a punitive or retributive approach to justice, which prevails in the U.S. criminal legal system.

Traditional justice asks:

  1. What law was broken?
  2. Who is guilty?
  3. What should their punishment be?

Restorative justice asks:

  1. Who was harmed?
  2. How were they impacted?
  3. What needs to be done to make it right?


It is notable that in the U.S. criminal legal system, crime is defined as a violation against the state (i.e., breaking the law). By contrast, restorative justice understands crime as a violation of people and relationships.

While restorative justice and punitive/retributive justice are often described as holding opposite values, they do espouse similar aims, including safety, reparation, and accountability. As this guide will clarify, key differences often lie in the process of achieving these outcomes, who is included in (or excluded from) that process, and what needs are (or are not) met. 

It can also be helpful to think of different “types” of justice as existing on a continuum. Though shown in separate categories below, in reality these approaches can overlap with one another; they are not mutually exclusive. Many restorative justice approaches include rehabilitative and/or transformative elements. 



  • Punishment-based
  • “Just deserts” 
  • Repays suffering with suffering


  • Offender-oriented
  • Aims to help an individual improve their life and circumstances


  • Victim-oriented
  • Aims to repair violated relationships
  • Prioritizes accountability/ responsibility


  • Community-based
  • Aims to change culture and social systems
  • Prioritizes addressing root causes

Reflection Questions

  • Consider an instance of harm or crime that you’re aware of. What did/could a response look like in light of the two sets of questions above? 
  • Where would you locate some of your ministry’s or institution’s current responses to harm or injustice on the spectrum above?
  • What examples of harm can you think of in the Gospel stories? How did Jesus respond?