Risk-Need-Responsivity: How the RNR model is making a difference in public safety
Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology), Co-author of “The Psychology of Criminal Conduct” (RNR model), Canada
Dr James Bonta is a world-renowned contemporary author in offender rehabilitation. He is the co-author of the book that offers the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model of offender assessment and treatment, a model that has directed developments in prison and probation systems worldwide. This interview explores different topics, including Dr Bonta’s views on why some correctional administrations could be failing to apply the RNR model correctly.
What led you to a career in the criminal field? What is it about it that piqued your interest?
JB: Very early on, when I was an undergraduate student doing my bachelor’s degree, I was interested in kids who were a little bit hard to manage.
I did some volunteer work with children with conduct disorders and their families. While I did this, I was also hired to do some psychometric testing for the juvenile court, and I also worked part-time at a training school for juveniles. (When families could not manage their kids, the court would take over and send them off to the so-called training school).
I was doing all of this, and then I was accepted to come to do my clinical doctorate at the University of Ottawa, which required that I had at least a year of work experience. That’s how I got involved with working at the training school and the juvenile court.
At that time, I embarked on a research study on decision-making among juvenile court judges and I had to have somebody review my final report.
My thesis supervisor at the University of Ottawa was good friends with Don Andrews, who did the external review. That’s how I first met Don Andrews. Then, when I was finishing up my doctorate, Paul Gendreau, the regional psychologist, hired me to work part-time at a maximum-security detention center in Ottawa.
When I graduated in 1979, I was made full-time, gradually building that department. I became the Chief Psychologist there and established the only Psychology Department in a detention center in Canada. We usually have psychology departments in prisons, but this was for people waiting for trial and newly sentenced.
That’s when I started doing research on the Level of Service Inventory (LSI). Don Andrews was already developing it in probation, and I began administering the LSI to inmates. After they’re released from prison, I would follow them up and do the validity studies.
My interest in the criminal field started early, and I was fortunate to have everybody who was anybody in the rehabilitation field – Paul Gendreau, Don Andrews, Steve Wormith, Bob Ross – very close to me, in Ottawa. We met regularly, and their support just strengthened my commitment to the field.
Everybody I associated with were all psychologists, and to say that rehabilitation was ineffective did not make sense.
JT:Although the body of your research is not limited to the RNR model, this is perhaps the one that assumes great prominence in the global correctional arena since it has systematically been used to assess and rehabilitate offenders around the world.
What context triggered the development of the RNR model?
JB: I started working at the detention centre in 1976. That was two years after Martinson’s report of his rehabilitation literature review, which essentially launched the “Nothing Works” movement.
Everybody I associated with were all psychologists, and to say that rehabilitation was ineffective did not make sense. Is there something special about criminals that they can’t learn new behaviors?
From general psychology, we know how people learn; we know that you can treat depression and anxiety. From a treatment perspective, of course you can do something positive with offenders.
Simply punishing them led to the “Get Tough” movement and, as a psychologist, that also makes no sense. We know that punishment can suppress behavior, but only under particular conditions. And punishment cannot teach new behaviors.
We had to respond to the thesis of “Nothing works”. Paul Gendreau and Bob Ross wrote narrative reviews showing that treatment can work under certain conditions.
With Don Andrews and Bob Hogue, we undertook a literature review to determine what’s essential for the treatment programs that do work because not all programs are ineffective! Some do work. So, what’s so special about them?
That’s when we came up with the 1990 paper on Risk-Need-Responsivity – the RNR model.
We saw specific patterns in the effective treatment programs. They were related to matching services to risks, focusing on criminogenic needs and using cognitive-behavioral interventions.
We showed the evidence in another paper published six months later, a meta-analysis of treatment programs. We showed that the programs that follow those principles were associated with a significant reduction in recidivism.
To what extent did you expect to garner so much international attention and success with your book and the RNR model, specifically?
JB: We had no idea where this would go.
Over the years, not only did we write to support the model, but it was important when other researchers also started to examine these principles and found empirical support. When others started finding it, beyond the authors themselves, the model really gained momentum.
Gradually it was applied, especially to the development of the Level of Service Instrument, because that was so easy to do and clearly was linked to the RNR model. If you’re going to follow the RNR principles, the very first thing you have to do is to have a good way of assessing risk because you want to match service to risk. You’re not just measuring static risk factors; you’re also measuring criminogenic needs.
The Level of Service Inventories demonstrated that you can measure risk and needs reliably. It gave correctional agencies a tool to better align their services to the assessment process.
Do you sense that the RNR model and the psychology of criminal conduct principles are well interpreted and applied by most correctional systems and their practitioners?
JB: I think there are several problems from an academic perspective. The RNR model has been criticized for being too risk-focused and ignoring strengths.
However, many RNR detractors have not read the full model carefully. They’re stuck on the 1990 paper that speaks of four principles, but since then, over the years, as we learned more and more about the effectiveness of treatment, we have added principles.
If you look at the “Psychology of Criminal Conduct”, in the 6th edition now, there are fifteen principles.Those principles include strengths and organizational factors. I would encourage those who have criticized the RNR model to read the full text more carefully.
Now, is it being applied well? I think there’s lots of room for improvement for the most part!
We did a study twenty years ago with a provincial agency, looking at what probation officers do with their clients and if they were following the RNR principles. Even though the agency had the policy to follow the risk and need principles, we found that they weren’t following them very well. And they certainly weren’t attending to criminogenic needs.
When we look at the control groups of our training studies on the Strategic Training Initiative in Community Supervision (STICS) – that we did with probation officers – we see that they don’t follow the principles without specific training in the RNR principles.
Looking at the broader literature, we find that probation/parole officers spend a lot of time on administrative tasks and enforcement, looking to see if clients follow the probation conditions. So, unfortunately, I don’t think the principles are being applied very well.
But the positive side is that with proper training, probation officers can follow those principles and do it well. The first suggestion I would make to heads of correctional agencies is to admit that they’re not perfect. I’ve been to many places, giving conference talks and everybody says: “Oh, we’re already doing that”. I would challenge them to really look and give the evidence that they’re really doing that. Once you admit that you have a problem, devote resources to figuring out where that problem is!
I have devoted the last ten years of my research to the training of probation officers. Because, in Canada, when you are hired as a probation officer, your training is understanding the Criminal Code, how to write a pre sentence report, how to apply a breach and take it to court.
There is none or very little training on face-to-face intervention skills. “My client comes into my office; how do I approach him? How do I talk to him? If this client has a pro-criminal attitude and thinking, how do I change that?”
This is what is needed. Because if you want to reduce recidivism, the only way you could do it is to teach clients how to be more pro-social. They’re not going to do it on their own.
So, the first step is to recognize that if staff can follow our model more closely, it can make a difference in community safety.”
The best example I have to date about an organization following this kind of three-step approach is in the province of British Columbia, where we implemented STICS. It’s a training program to teach probation officers how to follow the risk principle, address criminogenic needs, and change criminal thinking to more pro-social thinking.
When I pitched this study to this provincial agency, they stated their belief in the RNR model and recognized its importance. They were willing to work with me and Public Safety Canada to make it happen and commit the necessary resources to do it. They received a few extra million dollars from their Treasury Board to make sure this project could come to fruition.
We implemented it and trained 350 probation officers. We also prepared some of the probation officers to become future trainers.
Then we carefully monitored probation officers with recorded sessions, and we found very positive results.
There was a reduction in general recidivism and a reduction in violent recidivism. And that organization has maintained their quality; they’re super committed to it. Even today, I have regular video meetings with the director of community services in that province to check how it’s going and what they’re doing to ensure the level of quality.
In many places around the world, some Directors-General [of Corrections] say, “Oh, I like that presentation; we’re going to do the same thing here”. They do it for about a year or two, and then they forget about it. They lose sight of it. It seems so essential to have a long-term commitment.
We also worked with Sweden, which implemented STICS across their service. They trained over 700 probation officers in less time than we did the 350 in British Columbia. My colleagues and I went there to train an original forty people, but we weren’t involved in the remaining implementation.
However, their results were not as positive as ours in British Columbia, and I’m not sure what happened and how could it be made better.
A 2020 research article, published on Criminal Justice and Behavior, talks about some possibilities on why they didn’t get more robust results. They also did audio recordings, and they found that, after training, the skills of the probation officers improved. Yet, after six months, they fell back.
There’s an issue about what kind of ongoing support there was to keep the skills sharp and improving.
When we did our British Columbia study, probation officers had to attend monthly meetings, submit two audio recordings for feedback, and receive refreshers every year.
Our view was that you can’t learn how to do cognitive restructuring after going to one training. Any workshop may energize people, and they learn something. Still, they need to continue their professional development to improve their skills.
Denmark also developed something similar to STICS. Several years ago, they sent a few people to Canada to watch us do training. We gave them the manuals and everything they would need to adapt it. As far as I know, they did some training years ago, but there’s been no evaluation, so I don’t know how it has gone.
I've been heavily involved in developing the Level of Service risk/need instruments, which many jurisdictions in Canada and the United States use. In Europe, Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland also use the Level of Service Inventory. Globally speaking, there’s interest in the risk/needs assessments that have been developed growing out of the RNR model worldwide, including in Singapore, Hong Kong, Chile, and Australia.
In your view, how important are models and instruments for assessing and treating offenders. And what are the implications of their use for prison and probation practitioners?
JB: You need to have a reliable and valid risk/need assessment. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have any hope of being effective in reducing recidivism. It is essential.
The risk principle says to provide intensive services to the higher-risk individuals and not spend your time on low risk. But if you don’t have a risk assessment instrument that can differentiate low from high and medium, how can you do anything? There have been so many programs that would put clients into treatment programs regardless of their risk. It makes no sense.
I am a strong believer, advocate, and promoter of rehabilitation programs. Many jurisdictions have risk assessments in place, but they are static risk instruments.
You may use them to follow the risk principle, but they are no help in guiding treatment programs. That’s where you need to assess criminogenic needs. You may want to evaluate non-criminogenic needs, like depression and anxiety. That can be important for delivering treatment from a responsivity perspective. Still, at the very minimum, you need to assess criminogenic needs.
That’s why in the 1980s, we developed the LSI. It was one of the first instruments to assess both risk and criminogenic needs with validity. For me, assessment isn’t to figure out who to release from prison or put in maximum security. Those are important; you have to do that, but, in my view, assessment is to inform treatment programming.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to administer these instruments. These are not psychopathy checklists to complete. Either in Denmark, in Scotland or Canada, probation officers and classification officers administer these instruments after receiving training. In our country, the minimum requirement for these positions is a university degree. You can do it with non-psychologists who can learn it and do it well.
In implementing new training programs, the difficulty is fidelity: staying true to the program's intent. And that also will involve resources. It requires ongoing monitoring and not losing sight of what you want to do.”
JT:Nearly three decades have passed since you co-developed the model and principles highlighted in “The Psychology of Criminal Conduct”. The book has had six editions so far, since 1994.
How has the body of scientific evidence you have pioneered evolved over the years, and what developments would you welcome, given the reality and challenges of today’s world?
JB: I just signed a contract for the seventh edition. I welcome and look forward to criticism from people who point out areas that could be strengthened, made more helpful and informative.
I see a positive increase in attention to training probation officers in “What Works”. We developed STICS in Canada, but in other countries, you have training programs that are, in a sense, a bit of a spinoff of STICS.
More and more areas are realizing that organizations need to go beyond training probation officers in administrative skills and train them in skills that actually make a difference.
The huge challenge is large scale implementation. It’s relatively easy to run a small randomized experiment showing that what you’re doing makes a difference.
Moreover, in implementing new training programs, the difficulty is fidelity: staying true to the program’s intent. And that also will involve resources. It requires ongoing monitoring and not losing sight of what you want to do. That will be a problem that will keep everybody busy for a long time and will get researchers working. And we’ll see as time progresses, can we do it better and better?
The seventh edition will follow the same basic structure of this sixth edition. I wrote the book in 2015; certainly, there’s been a lot of new research. That will be updated and refreshed.
And I’m going to spend more time talking about the issue of trauma and its relationship to risk assessment and treatment. I also want to give more weight to women offenders and minority groups.
Dr James Bonta
Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology), Co-author of “The Psychology of Criminal Conduct” (RNR model), Canada
Dr James Bonta received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Ottawa in 1979. He was a psychologist and later lead psychologist at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Center, Canada, a maximumsecurity facility. Bonta has held various academic and professional positions throughout his career and was a member of the Editorial Boards for the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Behavior. He has received several awards, including the Canadian Psychological Association Criminal Justice Section Career Contribution Award (2009), the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), the Maud Booth Correctional Services Award (2015) and Community Corrections Award from the ICPA (2015). Between 1990 and 2015, Dr Bonta served as Director of Corrections Research at Public Safety Canada.