Risk Need Responsivity (RNR) model

The RNR model is a widely used framework guiding treatment of offending populations. The model is based on extensive research into the factors which predict recidivism – these are the key dynamic (i.e. changeable) risk factors that are most strongly related to recidivism. The other key risk factor is prior offending (but this is not able to be changed so is not a treatment target).

The model is based on three principles; risk (identifying the risk factors leading to offending and matching treatment to those at the highest risk), need (targeting treatment to influence factors most strongly associated with offending) and responsivity (ensuring treatment is specific and appropriate for the individual needs of the client).


The risk principle establishes the need to assess the risk of re-offending using static and dynamic risk factors. Static factors are historical markers linked to offending that cannot be changed (e.g. age, gender, criminal history) and dynamic factors are those that have been shown to predict future offending and that are amenable to change (e.g. criminogenic needs).

Risk level is generally assessed by identifying the number of known risk factors that exist for an individual client, through the Level of Service Inventory Revised (LSI-R), which provide a risk rating of low, moderate or high

Once risk has been identified, the level of risk must be matched to the intensity of treatment. Low risk clients will require little to no intervention whereas high risk clients will need more intensive treatment to achieve improved outcomes.


The needs principle argues that to reduce recidivism, treatment must focus on dynamic risk factors or criminogenic needs. All human beings have a range of needs, some of which are related to offending (criminogenic needs) and some are not (non-criminogenic needs). Whilst RNR promotes focus on criminogenic needs, it does not exclude treatment of non-criminogenic needs.

Criminogenic needs:

  • Antisocial personality pattern
  • Pro-criminal attitudes
  • Social supports for crime (anti-social peers)
  • Substance abuse
  • Poor family/marital relationships
  • Low engagement with employment or education
  • Lack of prosocial recreational activities

Non-criminogenic needs:

  • Self-esteem
  • Personal distress
  • Major mental disorder
  • Physical health
  • Attachment
  • Grief & Loss
  • Trauma

A treatment plan should then be developed with realistic goals and specific outcomes to address the unmet needs. For example, for a client presenting with substance abuse need, an appropriate goal to work towards could be ‘no dirty urines for three months’. It is important to identify ways to measure progress towards goals (e.g. making prosocial friends, abstinence). Consideration should be taken when addressing non-criminogenic needs to ensure that they will have a positive influence on offending and overall outcomes.

Treatment of criminogenic needs have been consistently shown to reduce offending. Criminogenic needs most likely to influence offending include reduced contact with criminally-involved family, engagement in employment and reduced substance use (Wooditch et al., 2014).


The responsivity principle refers to factors that can affect a client’s response to interventions. Ensuring treatment is flexible and tailored to the individual needs of the client will lead to better outcomes for the client.

Internal factors:

  • Intellectual functioning (e.g. ABI, literacy)
  • Self-esteem
  • Motivation
  • Treatment readiness
  • History of trauma
  • Personal strengths and aspirations
  • Mental illness

External factors:

  • Treatment delivery (e.g. group vs individual)
  • Conflicting responsibilities
  • CALD background
  • Environmental support (e.g. transport, finances, accommodation)
  • Therapeutic relationships
  • Physical disability

Potential responsivity issues should be considered during planning of treatment, with attention paid to methods of altering intervention to decrease barriers towards treatment.

Good Lives Model (GLM)

The RNR has received some criticism in that it is primarily concerned with the mitigation of risk (Ward, Yates, & WIllis, 2012) rather than future goals. Another framework that has gained some recognition in offender rehabilitation is the Good Lives Model (GLM) (Ward, Mann, & Gannon, 2007). This model builds upon the RNR risk-management model, but highlights that all people have similar life goals and needs, but that some people have areduced capacity or means to achieve them, leading to offending behaviour.

The GLM approach seeks to identify the client’s “primary goods” – the values that are most strongtly related to their sense of self and purpose (i.e. their interests, abilities and aspirations that matter most to them). Primary goods can be grouped into three categories – body (e.g. healthy living, pleasure), self (e.g. work, play, agency, creativity, knowledge) or social (e.g. relationships, community). While all individuals likely seek these goods, the priority given to each differs significantly between individuals. Hence, understanding of a client’s goals must be specific to the individual. Secondary goods refer to the ways in which individuals go about securing their primary goods. For example, obtaining work in a field of interest may satisfy the primary good of ‘excellence in work’.

The model suggests that offending relates to a core problem in an individual’s ability to achieve their primary goods in a socially acceptable and personally meaningful way. Ward et al., (2007) propose that exploring the circumstances of an individual’s offending and building upon an individual’s own strengths can lead to reduced offending.

How does the GLM inform treatment?

In practice, the GLM encourages intervention plans to be constructed around helping clients develop capabilities to achieve the goals that are meaningful to them. Treatment should have a focus on developing self-efficacy and capacity building, as well as providing resources that clients can use themselves to produce change.

Clinicians should have an understanding of what strengths, values and aspirations are most important to a client and identify the ways the client attempts to achieve these “goods”. By identifying the ways in which capacity, scope, means and coherence are limiting progression towards goals, the clinician can influence the client in a more positive direction.

The clinician and client should then work together to implement a self-determined life plan that uses the individual’s own strengths to move towards meeting desired and values life outcomes. With an understanding of what constitutes a good life for them, the client can then start to identify secondary goods that can be utilised to achieve a better life.

Desistance theory

The desistance theory of offender rehabilitation aims to understand how and why some offenders go on to refrain from further offending – that is why do some people continue to commit crimes and others do not.

There are several theories that aim to explain the differences between those who continue to offend and those who desist, which are outlined below.

Natural desistance theory:

This theory considers the developmental life-stage of individuals as the leading explanation for desistance, and suggests that people essentially “grow out” of criminality. Age is considered to be a significant factor in offending, supported by age-related arrest rates, and this is suggested to be due to higher rates of rebellion against authority at younger ages. Additionally, as employment and relationships become more important, criminal engagement is thought to reduce. Life stability may play a role in desistance, with attention shifting onto interests and focuses other than criminality. Often, the routine of working and earning money can relieve the motivation to engage in crime for finances or ‘entertainment’.

Cognitive transformation:

The cognitive transformation theory of desistance suggests that individuals with a narrative script focused on “condemnation” will likely also possess an external locus of control. This is a common attribute of those who persist with crime. Contrastingly, those with a narrative script based around “redemption” and an internal locus of control are more likely to take responsibility for their behaviour, and consciously attempt to move away from crime.

Similarly, an offender’s social identity can also be an influential factor in recidivism. Many offenders may have internalised a social identity whereby they are perceived, and in turn believe, that they are criminals, lower class, addicts etc., and are unable to change or develop separate social identities. Individuals who manage to take on new social identities (e.g., good father, hard worker, positive influence etc.) are more likely to commit to long term desistance.

Narrative therapy approaches which assist clients to re-frame their personal narratives in a way which promote a prosocial identity are supported by this theoretical model.

Informal social control:

The informal social control theory suggests that criminal behaviour/substance use is largely due to offenders not engaging in typical “informal social control” measures (e.g., consistent work, marriage etc.). It is suggested that this is because many offenders have impaired self-control, and tend to engage in behaviour that serves immediate pleasure (e.g., drug use gambling, casual relationships etc.). Evidence for this comes from reduced rates of crime once individuals are married or gain significant employment after release from prison, although this is not possible for all offenders.

How does desistance theory inform treatment?

  • Treatment should be tailored to an offender’s criminal career, age and maturation
  • Allow time and opportunity for the offender to reconstruct their past narrative (e.g. from shame to redemption)
  • Desistance is linked to self-efficacy and agency, whereas recidivism is linked to a lack of these factors. Interventions that encourage and respect self-determination are likely to yield better results which means ‘working with offenders, not on them’.
  • Encourage and facilitate the offender’s engagement in social supports / community interaction. This may include family, friends, and their immediate local community (e.g., volunteer work etc.)
  • Treatment should involve the use of positive psychology principles. For example, a focus on factors that help the individual desist (as opposed to only focusing on the drawbacks of crime). Positive interventions are likely to foster engagement in constructive behaviours that will reduce the chances of recidivism.

Whist the Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) models focus on eliminating risk factors, which is necessary for treatment, it also tends to focus more on ‘negative’ aspects of the offender, and addresses “what not to do” as opposed to what strengths and goals could be useful to focus on to desist.

Desistance theory suggests that inclusion of more ‘positive’ approach benefits desistance.

“Offenders hold negative attitudes toward the concept of rehabilitation and correctional treatment programs … effectiveness stems from the potential they offer for empowering participants rather than trying to compel them to change” (Harris, 2005).


Ward, T., Mann, R. E., & Gannon, T. A. (2007). The good lives model of offender rehabilitation: Clinical implications. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12(1), 87-107.

Ward, T., Yates, P. M., & Willis, G. M. (2012). The Good Lives Model and the Risk Need Responsivity Model: A Critical Response to Andrews, Bonta, and Wormith (2011). Criminal Justice and Behavior39(1), 94–110.

Wooditch, A., Tang, L. L., & Taxman, F. S. (2013). Which Criminogenic Need Changes are Most Important in Promoting Desistance From Crime and Substance Use? Criminal justice and behavior41(3), 276-299.

Youssef, C., Casey, S., & Day, A. (2016). Desistance: The “other side” of change and implications for maintenance programs. Journal Of Offender Rehabilitation, 55(7), 443-465. doi:10.1080/10509674.2016.1216913

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