The ABC’s of reducing recidivism

Reducing recidivism is notoriously hard.

Most people running and funding programs think they’re reducing criminal behavior, but they’re not. The majority of programs have no impact or are increasing recidivism.1

But others are crushing it. The best programs can reduce recidivism by up to 35%.2 That might not sound like much. But trust me, in a field where even 10% is winning, 35% is hitting the ball out of the park.

What gives? Why are some programs crushing it while others are having no impact, or worse?

Following a few principles separates the best programs from everyone else.

In this post I’m going to break down what separates the winners from the losers in the game of reducing recidivism. If you’re like me, you want to win. Whether you’re running or funding a program, if you want to hit a home run in the game of reducing recidivism, then you gotta know these three principles. They’re called Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR), and they explain the who, what, and how of designing an effective reentry program.

Without understanding these three principles, you’re shooting in the dark.

RNR is your roadmap to reducing recidivism.

RNR tells you:

  • Risk (R)  Who you should enroll in programs (hint: not everyone).
  • Need (N)  What you should do in your program (hint: not everything).
  • Responsivity (R)  How you should do it (hint: not anyway).

Why is knowing these principles so dang important?

It’s all about the data all the time. So before we get into each of the principles, let’s take a quick look at what the numbers tell us about RNR.

The graph below represents the results of a meta-analysis of 374 studies evaluating recidivism reduction against adherence to the three principles – risk, need and responsivity. The results are clear. The more a program follows the RNR principles, the more effective it is. If a program does not follow any of the principles, it will likely have no impact and there is the real chance it could increase recidivism.3

The three principles you must know to design, run or fund an effective reentry program.

1. Risk Principle (who)

There are two nuggets of gold in the risk principle.

  • We can predict criminal behavior and we get better results when we target people who have a higher risk of re-offending.  
  • We should match the intensity of the program to the risk level of the person. Less risky = less intense or no program. More risky = more intense program.

Risk here refers to the risk of re-offending, not the seriousness of the offense. Some people have more risk factors which makes them more likely to commit a crime and get re-arrested. Some people have fewer risk factors and are much less likely to be re-arrested. Makes sense, right?

The risk principle is about figuring out who is who and then treating them accordingly.

First step. Figure out who is who.

Use a risk assessment.

Don’t wing it here. Use an evidence-based risk assessment to determine who is who. A risk assessment is conducted as a one-on-one conversation, generally an hour long. You follow an interview guide, ask a ton of questions and record the answers. You then plug the information into a scoring guide which gives you a total risk score. The higher the score, the more likely the person will continue criminal behavior and be re-arrested.

At the reentry nonprofit I run, Turning Leaf, we’ve used both the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS) and the Level of Service Case Management Inventory (LSCMI) risk assessment tools. We’re currently using the LSCMI and prefer it over the ORAS for a variety of reasons. You can get trained in either and there are others on the market.

We get better results by targeting people at a higher risk to re-offend.

Treatment provided to higher risk people show lower recidivism compared to those at a low risk to re-offend.

It makes logical sense. If someone doesn’t have many risk factors, and thus has a low chance of continued criminal behavior, it’s going to be pretty dang hard to reduce their chances of re-arrest by much. On the flip side, there’s a big opportunity to bring down the risk of re-offending for people who are likely to continue continue their criminal behavior without an intervention.

Let’s look at the data when it comes to the risk principle. The graph below shows us that treatment services provided to people at a high risk to re-offend are associated with a 10% reduction in recidivism, but only 3% for those at a lower risk. 4

Not only do we get bigger drops in recidivism when working with higher risk people, but when we put low risk people in intense treatment programs, we can actually increase their chances of criminal behavior. That’s why it’s so important to use a risk assessment and know who is who before we start enrolling people in reentry programs.

When we put low risk people in intense treatment programs we can increase their chance of re-arrest.

Second step. Match up the intensity of the program with the risk level of the person.

First step is to use a risk assessment to know who is who. Second step is to match up the intensity of the program to the risk level of the person. Higher risk people need more intensive services. Low risk people need less intense or no intervention.

What does “intense” really mean?

Knowing a person needs more treatment is not the same thing is knowing how much they should get.

Intensity refers to the percent of a person’s daily time spent in treatment and how long it lasts. Residential drug treatment programs are normally very intense and bi-weekly outpatient classes are low intensity. The reentry program I run includes three hours of group therapy daily M-F combined with on-site work in our t-shirt screen printing business. Our men get about 200 hours of treatment over four months.

The amount of treatment is called dosage.

Dosage is the term used for the amount of treatment needed in order to affect change. There are a lot of unanswered questions about dosage. We just haven’t done a lot of research here yet. However, based on the few studies we have, the rule of thumb recommendations are:

  • 100 hours of treatment for low services
  • 200 hours of treatment for moderate services
  • 300 hours of treatment for intense services 5

It’s unclear what is included in these hours (case management, mentoring, support services, etc.) or the frequency of contact (how often and over what period of time) and there is some research that shows that the quality of services may be more important that the actual number of hours delivered. 6 But that makes sense, right? Tons of low-quality services probably isn’t doing much to help people change.

There will be a lot of failures when working with a higher-risk population

It’s important for people running and funding programs to understand that even the best programs will have a high percentage of failures when targeting a higher risk population.

A common mistake in reentry programming is to compare high risk to low risk outcomes rather than look for treatment effects.

If you have 100 high risk people, about 60% will fail. If you put them in well-designed program at a high enough intensity, you may reduce the failure rate to 40%. If you have 100 low risk people about 10% will fail. If you put them in same program their recidivism rate will increase to 20%. The program working with low risk people, which is actually increasing recidivism rates, will appear to have better outcomes.7

Major take-away’s – #1 Risk Principle:

  • To follow this principle, you must be able to reliably predict criminal behavior by using a risk assessment.
  • In order to measure program impact (recidivism reduction), you must know the risk of who you are working with.
  • It’s critical to match up your organization’s internal capabilities to the risk level of your target population. Targeting a higher risk population requires in-house expertise in RNR and in the field of evidence-based interventions, as well as appropriate staffing and resources.

2. Need Principle (what)

This second principle tells us what we should be focused on in our programs. People released from prison have a lot of needs, but not all them are associated with their criminal behavior.

If we want to reduce recidivism, we must focus our attention on a person’s risk factors that are directly linked to criminal behavior – called criminogenic needs.

Criminogenic needs are called “dynamic needs” because they can be changed, unlike a static risk factor – age at first arrest, for example – which is correlated to the likelihood of future criminal behavior but it can never be changed.

What types of things should we target in programs?  

Factors that are related to criminal behavior and can be changed – criminogenic needs – should be the focus of programs.

Examples of criminogenic needs:

  • Anti-social attitudes, values and beliefs
  • Anti-social peers
  • Lack of problem-solving and self-control skills
  • Substance abuse
  • Negative attitudes about and low performance at school and work
  • Limited involvement in positive recreation activities

How do we figure out what we should target?

The information collected during the risk assessment does double duty. As we already talked about, it determines the person’s risk to re-offend and if they should be enrolled in a more intense program, a less intense program or no program at all. It also uncovers a person’s needs associated with continued criminal behavior (criminogenic needs), if they are a good fit for a program based on their needs, and – if they are a fit – what specifically should be targeted in treatment in order to affect change.

Use the information collected during the risk assessment to determine a person’s criminogenic needs and whether the person is a good fit for a program.

For example, if you assess a person whose major crime-related needs include substance abuse, aggression and negative attitudes about authority, but your program focuses on employment and unstructured mentoring sessions, you probably won’t do much to change their future criminal behavior.  

Also, focusing on just one need area with a high risk population won’t get you too far. People at a high risk to re-offend have multiple needs and programs that are effective target more than one criminogenic need area.

The graph below shows us the importance of targeting criminogenic needs in reentry programs. It’s easy to increase recidivism if we focus on the wrong things. 8

Know the difference between core programming v. activities

Not everything that happens in a program will be directed towards criminogenic needs, nor should it. There’s a lot that happens “in between” treatment that is valuable. But it is important to distinguish between what’s being done to reduce recidivism – core programming – and everything else.

Core programming is designed to reduce recidivism by focusing on criminogenic needs. These are the hours counted towards dosage.

Activities are everything else. These are the things that happen in programs to have fun, build truest, or keep people busy. Activities are a needed and important part of a program model, but they alone do not reduce recidivism. 

It’s common for programs to be designed with activities but no core programming targeting specific needs associated with reducing recidivism. 

At Turning Leaf, we occasionally take fields trips around town or head out to the basketball court behind our building. We order pizza for the guys and sometimes I take them with me to community events. But these are activities not designed to reduce recidivism. They’re important for other reasons, but we don’t consider them core programming.

Major take-away – #2 Need Principle:

  • To follow principle #2 service providers must understand the dynamic criminogenic needs of participants and target those factors in core programming.

3. Responsivity Principle (how)

This principle is the “how” of treatment. If we know what we want to target in treatment (criminogenic needs), then how should we do it?

We could attempt to do it through art or theater, talking or exercise, computer coding or yoga. But those are activities, not core programming. There’s nothing wrong with them as activities. But they don’t target criminogenic needs in a way that reduces recidivism.9

Drama and art classes, pets in prison, exercise and eating a better diet do not directly target criminogenic needs, and thus do not reduce recidivism.

So, how should we target criminogenic needs then? There are two parts to the responsivity principle that tell us how we should target criminogenic needs.

Part 1 – General Responsivity

The first part, called general responsivity, states that the most effective programs are behavioral. Behavioral programs use strategies that are effective in reducing recidivism.

Effective programs are behavioral and use cognitive-behavioral strategies to target criminogenic needs.

Behavioral programs:

  • Focus on a person’s present circumstances, not the past
  • Focus on the risk factors that are influencing the person’s behavior
  • Are very structured
  • Are action oriented, not talk oriented
  • Teach new pro-social skills to replace anti-social ones (e.g. lying, aggression) through modeling and practice
  • Consistently reinforce clearly identified behaviors in specific ways (praise, point system, rewards system)
  • Use cognitive-behavioral approaches to target anti-social attitudes and thinking and help people improve problem-solving and self-control

Non-behavioral interventions are not effective at reducing recidivism.

These types of interventions are not effective:

  • Unstructured and vague programs
  • Education programs (ex. drug and alcohol)
  • Shaming techniques
  • Talk therapy
  • Art therapy (painting, literature, theater)
  • Exercise
  • Fear tactics
  • Lectures
  • Self-help
  • Character building (wilderness programs, scared straight, boot camps)

The chart below shows us that adherence to general responsivity (i.e., using cognitive behavioral methods of intervention) results in an average of a 23% in recidivism. 10

Part 2 – Specific Responsivity

General responsivity is straightforward. We should use behavioral programs and cognitive-behavioral strategies to target criminogenic needs.

But the second part of the principle, called specific responsivity, is where things get less clear. It’s the least researched and, in many ways, the most complex part of the three principles.

In a nutshell, specific responsivity says that effective programs adapt treatment to the individual characteristics of the people they’re working with. This means designing and running programs that consider cognitive skills level, motivation level, age, gender and ethnicity, among other factors.

Effective programs adapt treatment to the individual characteristics of their target population.

Throwing everyone into a program together and hoping for the best is not a great strategy when it comes to reducing recidivism.

At Turning Leaf, we target men ages 25-50, who score med-high on a risk assessment, without major substance use disorders, who have street level crimes related to finances (robbery, selling drugs), violence or lifestyle choices (carrying guns, stealing cars). When we got more specific about our target population a few years ago, everything about the program got waaay better.

If you’re asked to explain your target population, and you don’t know how to answer, more than likely you’re not following the specific responsivity principle.

Major take-away’s – #3 Responsivity Principle:

  • Use structured behavioral programs that focus on the risk factors influencing the person’s criminal behavior.
  • Use modeling, practice and reinforcement to teach new pro-social skills and replace anti-social ones.
  • Use cognitive-behavioral approaches to target anti-social attitudes and thinking and help people improve problem-solving and self-control.
  • Adapt programming to fit the individual needs of the target population and consider cognitive skills level, motivation level, age, gender and ethnicity in the program design.

Is knowing RNR all you need to design and run an effective reentry program?

No. Heck no. Nothing about reducing recidivism is easy. But if you understand RNR and design and implement your program accordingly, then you have a chance.

RNR isn’t sexy or fun. It’s not computer coding or entrepreneurship or Shakespeare theater. But it works. The more closely aligned your program is to RNR, the more effective it will be.


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