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James Bonta sets out the evidence for the Risk-Need-Responsivity model for HMI Probation.

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1990 to the present

The latest (1 July 2023) Academic Insight from HM Inspectorate of Probation focuses on the Risk-Need-Responsivity model from 1990 to the present. It was written by James Bonta, who was Director of Corrections Research at Public Safety Canada from 1990 until 2015, and is one of the authors of the original RNR model.

Mr Bonta summarises the history of the model of assessment and rehabilitation from 1990 to the present day. The report makes it clear that the model is now supported by a multitude of studies and meta-analyses, and has been hugely influential in the development of assessment instruments and intervention programmes across jurisdictions, including in England and Wales. Although there have been criticisms of the model, these have often focused on the earliest principles rather than considering the model in its complete current form.


In 1990, James Bonta with his colleagues Donald Andrews and Robert Hoge summarised what they viewed as the major tenets for effective interventions with justice-involved persons (‘effective’ was meant as a reduction in recidivism). Four principles were described.

  1. The risk principle matched the level of risk to the intensity and breadth of services. Practically speaking, provide high levels of services to the higher risk cases and none or minimal services to the lower risk.
  2. Treatment programmes should address the NEEDS of their clients but not indiscriminately. The authors recognised that some needs are associated with recidivism reductions and others not. There are criminogenic needs (e.g., substance misuse, procriminal attitudes) and non-criminogenic needs (e.g., self-esteem, anxiety). Therefore, in order to decrease the client’s likelihood of recidivism, treatment providers should focus on criminogenic needs. 
  3. The responsivity principle involved matching the style and method of treatment to the client’s abilities and learning style. The responsivity principle called for the use of elements of cognitive-behavioural treatment. 
  4. Professional discretion (originally called professional override) acknowledges there are occasions when a client presents a unique set of circumstances falling outside of the first three RNR principles. This principle allows the professional to deviate from the principles but only under specified reasons.


The model has been modified in the light of evidence over the years and the most recent version of the RNR model now includes 15 principles configured around three different themes:

  1. overarching principles
  2. core RNR principles and key clinical issues
  3. organisational principles.

These principles are shown in the table below.

Organisational principles

Most readers will be familiar with the overarching principles and core RNR principles, so in this post I have focused on the organisational principles which describe the social context within which services are delivered.

Principle 13 confirms the evidence bases that interventions in the community that followed the principles of risk, need, and responsivity are much more effective than those delivered in institutional/residential settings.

Principle 14 emphasises the need for a skilled staff group. The report highlights that new (or agency) staff are rarely fully versed in the skills demanded by RNR. Very few come to the work setting knowing the differences between criminogenic and non-criminogenic needs, how to do cognitive restructuring, and how to modify their approach to working with women, minorities, or persons with serious mental illness. The principle asserts the importance of the General Personality and Cognitive Social Learning (GPCSL) perspective of criminal behaviour. GPCSL posits eight risk/need domains that are central to the prediction of criminal behaviour:

  1. Criminal History,
  2. Procriminal Companions,
  3. Procriminal Attitudes and Cognitions,
  4. Antisocial Personality Pattern,
  5. Education/Employment,
  6. Family/Marital,
  7. Substance Abuse, and
  8. Leisure/Recreation

British readers will recognise the similarity to our rehabilitation pathways and OASys assessment tool.

Finally, Principle 15 stresses the importance of the organisation developing a culture in which the RNR model can flourish with a particular emphasis on staff training and supervision.

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