Youth Justice

Expert view: Focus on criminogentic needs to reduce crimes rates

A recent review of juvenile justice foreshadows a major policy shift in youth justice (YJ) and calls into question the relevance of the trauma model in YJ programs.  This week’s blog focuses on the former; the next blog will focus on the latter.

The Review

The Youth Justice Review and Strategy: Meeting Needs and Reducing Offending was conducted by Penny Armytage, former Secretary of the Department of Justice and Regulation, and Professor James Ogloff AM, Director of the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University. It is is the first comprehensive, independent review of Victoria’s youth justice system in over 16 years. The report runs to over 700 pages and contains far too many recommendations to review in this blog. Therefore, I will focus on the underlying policy shift.

James Ogloff
Professor James Ogloff

The policy shift

The Review recommends a fundamental policy shift in youth corrections – a move away from a system that focuses on the ‘welfare needs’ of offenders, towards ‘criminogenic needs’, based on the Risk-Need-Responsivity model (RNR).

Penny armytiage
Penny Armytage

What is Risk-Need-Responsivity model (RNR)

RNR  is an evidence-based approach to reducing offending based on the work of Canadian researchers James Bonta, Don Andrews, and Paul Gendreau in the 1990s. (The Canadian Public Safety Dept provides an excellent but ‘readable’ overview of RNR and it is written by James Bonta and Don Andrews.)

The Risk-Need-Responsivity model states that the risk and needs of an offender should determine the strategies appropriate for addressing the individual’s criminogenic factors.

Risk principle: Match the level of service to the offender’s risk to re-offend.

Need principle: Assess criminogenic needs and target them in treatment.

Responsivity principle: Maximize the offender’s ability to learn from a rehabilitative intervention by providing cognitive behavioural treatment and tailoring the intervention to the learning style, motivation, abilities and strengths of the offender.

The ‘Need Principle’ in RNR differentiates between criminogenic needs vs. non-criminogenic needs.


Criminogenic factors

Criminogenic needs, also referred to as dynamic risk factors, are, “those offender needs that when changed are associated with changes in recidivism”  and include:

  • antisocial attitudes
  • antisocial peer associations
  • antisocial feelings
  • lack of self control
  • lack of pro-social skills
  • chemical dependencies.

The evidence indicates that to reduce crime rates, rehabilitation programs must focus on criminogenic needs.

Non-criminogenic factors

Non-criminogenic needs are those factors which, if changed (or improved), result in a decrease in offending.  Examples include:

  • increasing self-esteem (without reductions in antisocial thinking, feeling, and peers)
  • focusing on vague emotional/personal problems
  • increasing cohesiveness of antisocial peer groups
  • neighbourhood-wide improvements without touching the needs of higher-risk individuals
  • increasing conventional ambition (work/school) without concrete assistance to achieve them
  • fear of official punishment (i.e. “scared straight”)
  • physical training programs


Recent examples of non-criminogenic factors highlighted in the media

By way of illustration, recent media reports note that the rates of mental illness and acquired brain injuries (ABI) in prison populations is much higher than in the general population. There are two, often unstated, implications, namely that crimes rates will decrease if:

  • mental illness and ABIs in the general population decrease
  • treatment programs for convicted offenders focus on reducing the symptoms of mental disorders and ABIs

However, because the vast majority of people with mental illnesses and ABIs are not offenders, it calls into question the causal link with offending (the so-called false positive problem).

The RNR argument is not that these non-criminogenic needs are unimportant, but priority must be given to criminogenic needs. To focus on non-criminogenic needs to the exclusion of criminogenic needs will not reduce crime rates.

About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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