According to Howard Zehr, a pioneer of this modern concept, restorative justice differs from traditional criminal justice in terms of the guiding questions it asks. In restorative justice, the questions are:
- Who has been hurt?
- What are their needs?
- What are the causes?
- Who has a stake in the situation?
- What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right? 
In contrast, traditional criminal justice asks:
- What laws have been broken?
- Who did it?
- What do the offender(s) deserve?
Three central concepts provide the foundation for restorative justice philosophy and practice. They are:
- Crime is a violation of people and of interpersonal relationships.
- Violations create obligations.
- The central obligation is to put right the wrongs.
These assumptions lead to three basic principles:
- allows for focus on harms rather than the rules or laws that were broken.
- Wrongs or harms result in obligations.
- Restorative justice promotes engagement or participation, including those harmed, those who have harmed, and involved members of the community.
These principles suggest using the following value statements to guide the process:
- All people should be treated with dignity and respect, recognizing that each person has some piece of the truth.
- Each of us needs to be responsible for our own actions and needs to be held accountable for those actions.
- By our presence we are all members of communities and therefore connected to each other.
- We provide opportunities for reconciliation as appropriate and as defined by those affected by the actions of others. [from the Office of Justice & Peacebuilding at Mennonite Central Committee]