Criminogenic Theories

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

Link between offending and AOD use

Offending and AOD Use

Although substance use and crime are highly correlated amongst offending populations, the relationship between drug use and crime is complex, and widely debated. Mernard, Mihalic and Huizinga (2001) outline four competing theories of this relationship:

  • Drug use leads to crime
  • Crime leads to drug use
  • Drug use and crime influence each other in a pattern of mutual causation
  • Drug use and crime are either spuriously related or result from common underlying issues

The authors conclude that the onset of offending largely occurs before the commencement of drug use and hence drug use itself likely does not cause crime. The relationship between drug use and crime appears to change over an individual’s lifetime, with a stronger link between drug use and crime during adolescence. However, drug use and crime in adolescence is linked to the continuation of these behaviours during adulthood, with adolescent offenders more likely to participate in serious drug use during adulthood (Mernard et al., 2001).

Once offending has commenced however, drug use is influenced by crime and crime is influenced by drug use, having mutual contributory effects on each other. An example of this interaction is evident in a study of adolescent drug use and crime, which found that for some individuals, drug use could become an additional expense that is funded through criminal activity (Simpson, 2003). Additionally, psychopharmacological reasons such as being intoxicated or ‘hanging out for drugs’, are commonly cited as contributory factors to drug-crime relationships (Payne & Gaffney, 2012).

Whilst some crime is caused by drug use and some drug use is caused by crime, ultimately it appears that drug use and crime both result from several similar criminogenic lifestyle factors (Link & Hamilton, 2017).

Criminogenic issues underlying drug use-crime relationships:

  • Personality traits (e.g. impulsivity or neuroticism)
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Association with pro-criminal peers
  • Anti-social cognitions
  • Family and marital difficulties
  • Poor emotional/social supports
  • Poor school/work performance (e.g. unemployment)
  • Lack of involvement in pro-social activities (e.g. hobbies, sport)

While treatments addressing drug use and crime are important given their mutually interacting effects, the common underlying factors of these behaviours should also be a focus of treatment, given their association with drug use and crime. As both drug use and crime are common symptoms of criminogenic lifestyle factors, these core factors must be addressed in order to reduce a criminogenic lifestyle.


Link, N. W., & Hamilton, L. K. (2017). The reciprocal lagged effects of substance use and recidivism in a prisoner reentry context. Health & justice5(1), 8.

Payne J & Gaffney A. (2012) How much crime is drug or alcohol related? Self-reported attributions of police detainees. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice No. 439. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Menard, S., Mihalic, S., Huizinga, D. (2001) Drugs and crime revisited, Justice Quarterly, 18:2, 269-299.

Simpson, M., (2003). The relationship between drug use and crime: a puzzle inside an enigma. International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 14, Issue 4, 307 – 319.

Understanding Community-based Sanctions

Understanding Community-Based Sanctions

In recent years there have been several changes to sentencing and parole systems in Victoria, including:

  • The introduction of community correction orders (CCOs) to replace Community-Based Orders (CBO’s) and Intensive Correction Orders (ICO’s);
  • The abolition of suspended sentences; and
  • The introduction of combined sentences (a period of imprisonment followed by a CCO)

The Orders listed below can all have a drug and alcohol treatment condition attached to them.


Parole is an order than allows a prisoner to serve part of their sentence in the community, allowing for a supervised transition back into the community. Prisoners must apply to the Adult Parole Board to be eligible for release on parole and are only eligible if their court sentencing included a non-parole period (i.e. the minimum period the offender must serve in prison). On a parole order, individuals are supervised by a Corrections Victoria parole officer, and must meet several conditions which may include securing appropriate housing, completion of community work, electronic monitoring, attending drug or psychological treatment, or submitting for drug tests. The special condition that the parolee ‘undergo assessment or treatment for alcohol or drug addiction or submit to medical, psychological or psychiatric treatment as required’ was imposed on 59% of parolees in 2010–11.

If parole is cancelled (e.g. if an offender commits an offence while on parole), the prisoner will be required to fulfil the period of the original sentence remaining at the time of cancellation, as well as any further time imposed due to further offending.

Recent legislative changes have made it harder to obtain parole, meaning more offenders are spending longer periods in prison and more offenders are released from prison without parole.

Community Corrections Order (CCO)

A community correction order (CCO) is a sentence imposed by a court that allows offenders to complete their sentences in a community setting, rather than in prison. CCOs can be imposed for a maximum of two years per offence, and are limited to offenders who have committed less serious offences. CCOs can be imposed on their own or in addition to incarceration or a fine. CCOs have been implemented to be more flexible than and replace earlier community sentences such as suspended sentences, community-based order (CBO) and the intensive correction order (ICO).

People who are sentenced to a CCO must comply with specific conditions imposed by the courts, such as mandatory drug and alcohol treatment, unpaid community work, curfews and judicial monitoring. These conditions are often the same as those imposed during parole periods.

This type of sentencing is cheaper than housing someone in custody and results in better outcomes. For example, of offenders discharged from a CCO in 2014-15, 26.7% returned to corrective services within two years, in comparison to 43.6% of offenders discharged from prison. Since the abolition of suspended sentences in 2012, and the introduction of combined sentences, there has been a significant increase in the number of people on CCOs.  For example, in 2012, there were 5871 people on CCO’s, and by 2017 there were 14,298 – nearly three times as many.

Since 2014 in Victoria, offenders may be sentenced to a combined sentence, where they serve a term of imprisonment followed by a community corrections order. As of 2017 combined sentences are only available for offenders with sentences of up to one year.

Drug Treatment Order

A drug treatment order (DTO) is an order imposed by the Victorian Drug Court that involves a combined sentence of imprisonment with drug treatment, however the imprisonment sentence is suspended while the offender undergoes treatment. DTOs impose conditions such as regular supervision, restriction of movement/freedom and drug testing. The successful completion of a DTO allows the offender to avoid serving time in prison. However, failing to comply with conditions may result in further conditions imposed or time served in prison.

Supervision Order

Supervision orders require individuals who have served time in prison for serious sex/violent offences to undergo further post-release supervision. These orders may be imposed if the offender is considered to present a high risk to the community, they can be made for up to 15 years, and must be reviewed at three year intervals.

Supervision orders require offenders who pose a risk of committing serious offences to undergo community based supervision once released from prison and can include several conditions imposed by the court, including a condition to undergo alcohol and drug treatment.

Court Integrated Services Program (CISP)

The Court Integrated Services Program (CISP) is a program that can be mandated as a condition of bail, for individuals with social and/or health needs. CISP aims to provide support and treatment to individuals prior to sentencing, as well as reduce rates of re-offending. Individuals mandated to complete CISP may be required to access drug and alcohol treatment through the program. It is important to note that these individuals have not yet been found guilty of the current offence for which they are before the court, and as such treatment should focus on treating substance use rather than directly targeting their offending behaviour

Understanding the Prison Experience

Understanding Life in Prison

Prisoner demographics:

There has been a 70.8% increase in the number of prisoners since 2007 with 7100 prisoners as of 2017. In 2017 males made up 92.1% of the Victorian prison population. Of the overall prison population, 8.5% were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. Fifty percent of prisoners had been previously incarcerated. Prisoners were most frequently incarcerated for assault (22.3%), drug (14.4%), sex (13.1%), burglary (10.2%), property (9%) and breach of order (7%) offences. Eighty-eight percent of prisoners had not completed secondary school education, while 5.8% had completed secondary, trade/technical or tertiary education (Corrections Victoria, 2018).

Victorian prisons:

There are 11 publically operated prisons across Victoria and prisoners will often move through different prisons during their sentence. Ideally, prisoners will progress to minimum security prisons as they complete their sentence, although this is highly dependent on several factors (e.g. prisoner behaviour, willingness of prisoner, availability of beds, full prisons etc.).

Maximum security:

  • Melbourne Remand Centre
  • Melbourne Assessment Prison
  • Barwon Prison
  • Port Phillip Prison (Private)

Medium security:

  • Marngoneet Correctional Centre
  • Hopkins Correctional Centre
  • Ravenhall Correctional Centre
  • Loddon Prison
  • Fulham Correctional Centre (Private)

Minimum security:

  • Beechworth Correctional Centre
  • Dhurringile Correctional Centre
  • Judy Lazarus Transition Centre
  • Langi Kal Kal Prison

Women’s prisons:

  • Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC)
  • Tarrengower Prison

Forensic psychiatric hospital:

  • Thomas Embling Hospital

Prison classification:

  • Mainstream – this refers to the main prisoner body and tends to be the distinction between this population and prisoners in “Protection”
  • Protection – some prisoners need to be isolated (in protection units) from the main prisoner population (e.g., anyone on remand for a sex crime against a child, anyone known to have given information to police, certain people with an intellectual disability)
  • Protection from Protection – some prisoners that have worked in prisons, former police, certain high-profile identities require a further level of segregation – this usually only occurs at Barwon prison.
  • Management – Prisoners who have committed an offence or are deemed too difficult to manage in the mainstream population can be placed in management. These cells are usually segregated from the mainstream population and have a more rigid routine with fewer privileges.

Drug treatment in prison:

Drug use is prohibited in all prisons. Although there has been a reduction in ‘rampant’ use seen in the 1980’s, drug use is still common in prisons. One of the biggest dangers is the poor hygiene from unsafe injecting practices – e.g. multiple use of one blunt, shared syringe. Bleach is available to clean equipment and to combat the spread of blood borne viruses. Also abuse of prescribed medication is common, with prisoners getting it from others, either voluntarily or through stand-over tactics. At times, prisoners store medication under their tongue, secrete it onto their T-shirt to dry and use later, or vomit it up. All prisons (except Beechworth and Dhurringile) have drug and alcohol treatment provided as a result of the Victoria Prison Drug Strategy, details of which are available on the Department of Justice website.

Identified Drug User (IDU):

The IDU program is used to identify prisoners who are using or dealing drugs, and aims to reduce the amount of drugs in prison as well as reduce rates of drug use within the prison. A prisoner will receive an IDU if they test positive to a urine drug test, fail to submit a urine sample or are trafficking drugs within or into prison.

After receiving an IDU status, prisoners undergo a review process by drug and alcohol treatment providers, where they are offered support and treatment options. Prisoners will also receive sanctions according to the severity of their offence (e.g. fines, loss of contact visitation privileges).

Prisoners may be offered entry into the Drug-Free Incentive Program (DFIP), which is designed to motivate prisoners to reduce or stop their drug and alcohol consumption. In this program, prisoners must regularly provide ‘clean’ urine samples – which allows them to reduce their time without contact visits. Eligibility to this program is dependent on the category of the offence.

Trauma and pathology amongst prison populations:

It is widely accepted that the prisoner population has an over representation of psychosocial difficulties:

  • Trauma
  • Neglect/abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Drug and alcohol problems
  • Mental health difficulties
  • High risk of suicide/self-harm

Additionally, there is an elevated presence of diagnosed and undiagnosed pathology in this population, such as:

  • ADHD
  • Conduct/“Oppositional defiant”
  • PTSD
  • Major Depressive Illness
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychopathy
  • Anti-social personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder

Understanding the Prison Experience

Daily life in prison:

Prison is a highly structured and controlled environment, with much of daily life scheduled and tightly controlled. Days involve scheduled meal and work times, as well as time for other activities.

  • Paid employment (e.g. kitchen work, laundry, industries, painting, farm work, cleaning etc.). Depending on the work done, earnings vary from $6.25 to $8.50 per day. Family members can put in additional money to buy things, although prisoners must be complying with prison procedure to have these requests granted.
  • Access to services (e.g. dentist, doctor, treatment programs etc.). Treatment programs include drug/alcohol, mental health, violence intervention, sex offending intervention and emotion management programs.
  • Visitation – If a prisoner tests positive to drugs, fails to produce a urine sample or has received a punishment, they may have non-contact visits for up to a year. Some prisoners can access ‘special visits’ where they can cook food, watch TV, or spend the night with family – allowing them to spend more time with their family in an environment which is more like home.
  • Activities – physical training, running, football matches, pottery, art, etc.
  • Canteen – pivotal part of prison life, prisoners can buy items such as snacks.
  • ‘Muster’ is the process by which prisoners are counted and welfare checks are done. This process occurs multiple times throughout the day.
  • Lock downs involve the cessation of all movement, programs, industry etc. This occurs at night, following an incorrect muster, prisoner unrest, escape attempt, strike action or cell searches.
  • Smoking has been banned within prisons since 2015.

Impacts of prison:

Time spent in prison can have wide ranging sets of challenges on individuals. Life in prison can impact prisoners in a range of different ways, with some able to cope well with these challenges while others are more severely affected. When working with forensic clients, it is important to be aware of the challenges and experiences they may have faced while in prison, and the potentially lasting effects. Some of the difficulties prisoners may face while in prison include:

  • Family breakdowns
  • Loneliness and fear
  • Mental health difficulties (e.g. depression, anxiety)
  • Risk of suicide
  • Institutionalisation (i.e. the adaptation to imprisonment)
  • Social withdrawal/isolation
  • Psychological impacts (e.g. hypervigilance, interpersonal distrust, suspicion towards others)
  • Adverse effects on health (i.e. chronic stress may exacerbate chronic health conditions)
  • Reduced sense of self-worth
  • Loss of autonomy

To hear firsthand experiences of life in prison and further understand the impacts of prison on individuals, watch the videos linked below.

Life after prison:

Release from prison and reintegration into normal life can be a daunting and stressful process. It is often a time of considerable anxiety and adjustment. The fast paced and unstructured nature of society can be overwhelming, particularly for institutionalised prisoners. Don’t assume that release is a happy experience for everyone!

There are many risk factors for offenders being released:

  • Reunion with family and having to re-build relationships
  • Kids/noise/mess/demands
  • Homelessness
  • Debt/finance issues
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Avoiding crime associates
  • Mental health difficulties
  • Isolation/loneliness/exposure/anxiety
  • Parole conditions
  • Institutionalisation (dependence on prison systems/rules)
  • Employment
  • Community attitudes

For more information on understanding the prison experience, have a look at the videos under Further Reading and Resources.