The exact definition of restorative justice has been a source of great debate and remains contentious within the restorative justice field. Broadly speaking, two general conceptions of restorative justice have been put forth: a process conception and a values conception.
The process conception sees restorative justice as, “a process that brings together all stakeholders affected by some harm that has been done… These stakeholders meet in a circle to discuss how they have been affected by the harm and come to some agreement as to what should be done to right any wrongs suffered.” Some scholars have maintained that this process can take place in a range of contexts, including schools, workplaces, and other areas of civil society, while others see restorative justice strictly and solely as an alternative process for addressing crime. The most notable of these scholars is Kathleen Daly, who has asserted that restorative justice is a “justice mechanism.”
“Restorative justice is a contemporary justice mechanism to address crime, disputes, and bounded community conflict. The mechanism is a meeting (or several meetings) of affected individuals, facilitated by one or more impartial people. Meetings can take place at all phases of the criminal process – prearrest, diversion from court, presentence, and postsentence – as well as for offending or conflicts not reported to police. Specific practices will vary, depending on context, but are guided by rules and procedures that align with what is appropriate in the context of the crime, dispute or bounded conflict.”
Kathleen Daly, “What Is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question,” Victims & Offenders
In her analysis, Daly seeks to strip away the values and philosophical claims to look only at the process, a process that can be empirically studied and compared to other justice mechanisms.
Proponents of the values conception argue that restorative justice represents a greater paradigm shift than that, a new way of thinking about our response to crime and conflict, with common principles and values as the unifying factor between different restorative justice modalities. Following that line of reasoning, Zehr has offered the following definition of restorative justice:
“Restorative justice is an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have stake in a specific offense or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”
Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice 
Rather than defining restorative justice as a specific process or procedure, this conception sees restorative justice as better defined by the approach to justice the process takes and the principles and values underlying this approach.
Gerry Johnstone and Daniel Van Ness refer to this as the “reparative conception” of restorative justice. In this view, restorative justice is defined by its assertion that the response to crime or conflict must seek to repair the harms resulting from the incident or bring about healing. It is not solely the process or encounter, but rather this new way of understanding and approaching crime and conflict that is the defining feature of restorative justice.
Others take an even wider approach to the values definition of restorative justice, understanding it as a fundamentally different way of seeing the community as a whole, founded on common beliefs and a vision of a more ideal possible societal future. Johnstone and Van Ness refer to this definition of restorative justice as the “transformative conception.” In the transformative conception, humans are seen as fundamentally relational beings, connected to one another and to our environment. It is the mission of the restorative movement to transform individuals and social structures to be in alignment with this more relational and connected worldview. Kay Pranis similarly identifies underlying beliefs or assumptions about the nature of the universe and its operation that she argues are at the base of restorative justice work. These beliefs include that there is a core human need to be in good relationships, that all humans are connected and interdependent, that wisdom resides in each person, and that justice is healing. Johnstone asserts that, grounded in these beliefs, restorative justice operates as a wider social movement. This social movement seeks not only to transform the community’s response to crime, but also other aspects of contemporary society.
In my view, both the process and the values conceptions of restorative justice are important and mutually reinforcing. Braithwaite and Strang note, “It is best to see restorative justice as involving a commitment to both restorative processes and restorative values.” Restorative justice cannot be understood solely as a process or a “justice mechanism;” the greater social aspirations and distinct value system the movement has birthed plainly indicate the need for a more expansive understanding. Nor can the restorative social movement be adequately understood when separated from the processes by which the values are experienced.
Excerpt from Lindsey Pointer, Justice Performed: The Normative, Transformative, and Proleptic Dimensions of the Restorative Justice Ritual, PhD diss., Victoria University of Wellington, 2019.
 John Braithwaite and Heather Strang, “Introduction: Restorative Justice and Civil Society,” in Restorative Justice and Civil Society, ed. John Braithwaite and Heather Strang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1.
 Kathleen Daly, “What Is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question,” Victims & Offenders (2015): 13.
 Ibid., 14-15.
 Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice, Revised and Updated (New York: Good Books, 2015), 48.
 Gerry Johnstone and Daniel Van Ness, “The Meaning of Restorative Justice,” in Handbook of Restorative Justice, ed. Gerry Johnstone and Daniel Van Ness (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007), 17.
 Kay Pranis, “Restorative Values,” ibid., 65-66.
 Gerry Johnstone, “The Agendas of the Restorative Justice Movement,” in Restorative Justice: From Theory to Practice (Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 11), ed. Holly Ventura Miller (Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2008) 59.
 Braithwaite and Strang, “Introduction: Restorative Justice and Civil Society,” 2.