Principles of Recidivism Reduction

What Do We Mean by Risk of Recidivism / Criminogenic Risk?

The likelihood that an individual (either formerly incarcerated and/or under supervision of a justice agency) will commit a crime or violate the conditions of his/her supervision. In this context, risk does not refer to the seriousness of crime that a person has committed in the past or will commit in the future. People who have committed a violent or assaultive offense may still be considered at low risk of committing a future crime, for example. Standard assessment tools do not predict an individual’s likelihood of committing violent crimes; they only provide information on the likelihood that a person will reoffend in the future.

In recent years, criminal justice and social science researchers have identified specific principles that are proven effective in reducing recidivism. When implemented correctly and consistently, the principles of Risk, Need, and Responsivity will help to decrease the likelihood that an individual will reoffend.1 These principles, based on decades of study, help policymakers and practitioners make informed decisions on how to use their resources to improve outcomes for a population that is often served by the criminal justice, behavioral health, and other social service systems.

Effectively implementing the risk-reduction principles may require fundamental shifts in how correctional authorities and communities interact with individuals returning to the community. A detailed understanding of these principles should inform your work with individuals at all stages, or decision points, throughout the reentry process.

When implemented correctly and consistently, the Risk-Need-Responsivity Principles will help administrators and practitioners focus their resources where they will have the greatest impact on reducing recidivism and meeting the needs of individuals released from correctional control. These principles state the following:

Risk Principle: Focus supervision and services on the people most likely to commit crimes.

What Do We Mean by Risk Assessment?

A comprehensive examination and evaluation of both dynamic (changeable) and static (historical and/or demographic) factors that predicts risk of recidivism and provides guidance on services; placements and supervision; and in, some cases, sentencing.

Research shows that prioritizing resources for individuals at moderate or high risk for reoffending can lead to a significant reduction in recidivism. Conversely, intensive interventions for low-risk individuals are not an effective use of resources and may even be harmful by exposing them to high-risk individuals. To comply with the risk principle, you need to ensure your assessment tools accurately predict risk of recidivism and that the information from the tool is used to determine the appropriate services, supervision, and supports for each individual.

Traditionally, service providers have prioritized services and treatment for people who volunteer to participate or demonstrate a willingness to participate in services. However, programs that target high-risk individuals have a larger impact on recidivism rates than those programs that target low-risk individuals. An evaluation of Ohio’s residential treatment programs confirmed these results.2

Need Principle: Address an individual’s greatest criminogenic needs.

What Do We Mean by Criminogenic Needs?

The characteristics or circumstances (such as antisocial attitudes, beliefs, thinking patterns, and friends) that research has shown are associated with criminal behavior, but which a person can change. These needs are used to predict risk of criminal behavior. Because criminogenic needs are dynamic, risk of recidivism can be lowered when these needs are adequately addressed. While a person may have many needs, not all of their needs are directly associated with their likelihood of committing a crime.

Research shows that a person’s likelihood to commit a crime or violate the rules and conditions of their supervision can change when you attend to their criminogenic needs. This research indicates that there are seven criminogenic needs which contribute to an individual’s risk of recidivating: (1) anti-social attitudes; (2) anti-social beliefs; (3) anti-social friends and peers; (4) anti-social personality patterns; (5) high-conflict family and intimate relationships; (6) substance abuse; (7) low levels of achievement in school and/or work; and (8) unstructured and anti-social leisure time. Risk assessments help identify a person’s greatest criminogenic needs, so that that the appropriate services can be provided to that individual.

An effective reentry strategy does not ignore other general reentry needs (such as getting participants clothing, a driver’s license, a place to live, etc.). But it may use referrals and focus fewer resources to meet those needs. It structures services and supports so that these services attend first to participants’ key criminogenic needs.

Responsivity Principle: Adapt interactions and services so that they enhance an individual’s ability to learn and acquire new attitudes and skills.

The responsivity principle requires that all of an individual’s barriers to learning are considered when assigning or delivering services. People require interventions that are tailored to their distinct personality traits, service needs, and characteristics. Barriers to learning can include a mental illness, low motivation, and unpreparedness for change. Adherence to responsivity principles can help service providers address noncriminogenic needs that interfere with interventions or learning and motivate individuals who are unprepared for change.

One of the most important responsivity issues that your initiative should address is an individual’s motivation to change. Research has helped define techniques that are effective in motivating change. Corrections staff and service providers should incorporate these techniques in order to (1) effectively engage higher-risk participants, (2) build and strengthen intrinsic motivation, and (3) reduce the risk of recidivism. Examples of these techniques include

  • providing more compliments than critiques (researchers have demonstrated that a ratio of four to one is most effective);
  • using motivational interviewing tactics;
  • issuing swift, certain, and proportionate incentives and sanctions for behavior;
  • expressing empathy without conveying approval for negative behavior;
  • avoiding engaging in a power struggle when an individual resists change; and
  • reinforcing a person’s belief in his or her ability to change.


1. James Bonta and Don A. Andrews, Risk-Need-Responsivity Model for Offender Assessment and Rehabilitation (Ottawa, Ontario, CA Public Safety Canada, 2007).

2. Edward Latessa, Lori Brusman Lovins, and Paula Smith, Follow-up Evaluation of Ohio’s Community Based Correctional Facility and Halfway House Programs—Outcome Study (Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati Center for Criminal Justice Research, February 2010).