Integration of the Risk-Need-Responsivity Principles Into Juvenile Probation Case Planning

Integration of the Risk-Need-Responsivity Principles Into Juvenile Probation Case Planning

Researchers should use implementation science methods to create and test decision-making supports that could improve fidelity to risk reduction practices. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2019, Vol. 46, No. 5, 455-467

Implementation of Risk-Need-Responsivity Principles Into Probation Case Planning


Dara C. Drawbridge, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Kristina Todorovic, University of Toledo
Georgia M. Winters, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The Graduate Center City University of New York
Gina M. Vincent, University of Massachusetts Medical School


Objective: Research indicates moderate-to-limited integration of the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) principles in probation case planning. Efforts to improve implementation are important targets for research, policy, and practice. This study examined the ability of two juvenile probation departments to implement RNR principles with fidelity following a comprehensive implementation protocol that included RNR- related policies, creation of a service matrix for criminogenic need-to-service matching, and extensive staff training. Hypotheses: The researchers anticipated fidelity to the risk and need principles would be stronger than previous studies. Method: This implementation study involved secondary data analysis of services received over 10 months for 254 adolescent offenders (76.80% male, 72.40% White, M age = 16.13 years) from two probation departments following adoption of the Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory. Results: Probation departments evidenced strong fidelity to the risk principle, such that higher risk youth were assigned more services with higher intensity. Fidelity to the need principle was moderate at best (an average 24.61% to 29.38% need-to-service match) and varied by criminogenic need, overall risk level, and the operational definition of criminogenic need. Conclusions: Comprehensive implementation practices are associated with strong fidelity to the risk principle, but it may take longer for probation departments to achieve strong fidelity to the need principle. Researchers should identify more feasible methods for implementing the need principle and strive for a consensus on methods for measuring need-to-service match that are also consistent with probation policies.


risk assessment, risk management, risk-need-responsivity, need-to-service matching, YLS/CMI

Summary of the Research

“There were 856,130 arrests of individuals under the age of 18 in the United States in 2016. With probation being the most common disposition used by juvenile courts, juvenile probation officers (JPOs) are frequently tasked with formulating case management and supervision plans. The National Research Council (2013) and others have strongly recommended the utilization of standardized risk and need assessment tools to guide this case management process in an effort toward reducing reoffending rates for justice-involved youth. Consequently, most states have adopted risk-needs assessments for use in juvenile probation” (p. 456).

“The risk-need-responsivity (RNR) framework provides clear guidance for the use of risk-needs assessment instruments in case management. The RNR framework suggests that risk for reoffending can be reduced if the highest risk offenders receive the most intensive programming (risk principle), the programming targets the individual’s criminogenic needs (i.e., the variable risk factors that may be driving their offending; need principle), and characteristics that may affect treatment response are taken into account (e.g., treatment strategy used; individual characteristics such as strengths, motivation; responsivity principle). These RNR principles are supported by meta-analytic evidence from both adult and young adult/juvenile studies, demonstrating a strong association with lower recidivism rates” (p. 456).

“Despite strong evidence for what works, many studies indicate probation departments adopting risk-needs assessments have not implemented these practices well. There is some evidence probation departments that follow a comprehensive implementation process for their risk-needs assessment, including training on RNR and policies and procedures that support use of these principles, have better outcomes. Thus, the goal of the current study was to explore whether RNR principles can be integrated into probation case planning better than that reported in prior studies when probation departments first follow a comprehensive implementation process for their valid risk-needs assessment instrument” (p. 456).

“This exploratory implementation study examined how well JPOs matched services with youths’ individual criminogenic needs following comprehensive implementation of the YLS/CMI [Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory] and RNR-related policies in juvenile probation offices using data from the Risk/Needs Assessment in Juvenile Probation: Implementation Study (RNAJP). The RNAJP was a multisite, quasi-experimental study of risk-needs assessment implementation in juvenile probation offices. As de- scribed in previous publications, the implementation protocol in- cluded the development of RNR-related policies and procedures, a customized service matrix for matching criminogenic needs to services, and new case plan forms so that case planning would be aligned with the YLS/CMI in accordance with RNR principles. In accordance with the need principle, researchers instructed JPOs to match youths’ individual criminogenic needs with services, avoid making referrals for services that addressed criminogenic needs youth did not have, and to prioritize criminogenic needs so youth were not expected to attend more than three services at any given time. To date, research indicates the probation offices with good adherence to their risk-needs assessment policies experienced sig- nificant shifts in dispositions, rates of placement, and/or levels of supervision in a manner that was consistent with the risk principle compared to matched groups of youth prior to implementation of the risk assessment. Qualitative data from the JPOs in this study indicated most were using the YLS/CMI in their decisions and most stated that they selected service referrals based on the fit between services and needs” (p. 457).

“The current study used data from two probation offices in Pennsylvania that demonstrated good implementation of the YLS/ CMI to address three primary implementation-related research questions. First, did JPOs have good adherence to the risk principle in case planning? Good adherence would be present if the numbers of service referrals, criminogenic need areas addressed, and high intensity service referrals were all positively correlated with youths’ YLS/CMI risk levels. Second, did JPOs have good adherence to policies related to the need principle? Good adherence to the need principle would be present if rates of good matches within criminogenic need areas were relatively high (meaning JPOs referred youth referred to services that matched their YLS/CMI identified needs), rates of overprescription within criminogenic need areas were low (over- prescription is when JPOs did not refer youth to services designed to address criminogenic need areas they did not have), and if youths’ average need-to-service match ratio (the percentage of youths’ criminogenic needs directly matched with services) were relatively high. When youth appropriately did not receive a service for need areas that were not present (no need, no service), the current study methods did not consider these instances as good matches because these may inflate the rates. To answer the second research question, the authors tested two methods of operationalizing whether a criminogenic need was present depending on whether youth scored moderate to high on a need scale versus only high on a need scale. Third, were themes present in the prioritization of youths’ criminogenic needs across risk levels? To examine themes, the authors calculated the following for youth by their overall risk for reoffending: (a) the needs most often addressed with appropriate services (i.e., good match) and (b) the needs least often addressed with appropriate services (i.e., underprescription)” (p. 457).

“High-risk youth received an average of around three service referrals, compared to roughly one service referral for low-risk youth, and high-risk youth had significantly more need areas addressed in their case plans. High-risk youth also received significantly more high intensity services than other youth. Effect sizes for differences between the risk-level categories were medium to large. This is an improvement relative to some other studies in the field as reported in the systematic review by Viljoen and colleagues (2018), which concluded that adherence to the risk principle by professionals conducting risk assessment was only moderate” (p. 463).

“We determined adherence to the need principle was moderate for several reasons. First, need-to-service match results were best in this study when examining high needs only in each need domain, which indicated probation officers were prioritizing largely based on the highest YLS/CMI need domain scores. The rates of good matches had a wide range, depending on the need area (11.11% for attitudes/orientation to 47.44% for substance abuse), and were relatively low for some need domains. Second, on a positive note, overprescription was rare, which means that youth were rarely given services they did not appear to need. However, there was a problem with underprescription, especially in areas related to personality/behavior and attitudes/orientation. Only 26.09% of youth with a high need in personality/behavior received a service that addressed this domain, meaning 73.91% of youth with this need were underprescribed services. This is unfortunate because research with youth has demonstrated the personality/behavior need domain has the strongest association with later recidivism, relative to the others. Moreover, this finding did not appear to be due to a lack of services that would address personality/ behavior because each probation office had a minimum of 10 service options in this domain. However, because many of these services could only be obtained in residential treatment or institutions, it is possible JPOs and courts were trying to avoid removing youth from the community simply to get this need area addressed. Leisure/recreation was another area that was often underprescribed, but we would consider this a positive finding. Researchers instructed the probation officers in this study to give this area relatively less weight due to prior research indicating its association with recidivism has only a small to no significant effect size” (p. 464).

“To examine prioritization, we were most interested in whether attention to certain need areas varied as a function of youths’ overall risk level and how JPOs reconciled cases that may have had some moderate and some high needs. Thus, the emphasis here was on our method for examining need-to-service match after defining a need as present if it was either moderate or high. There was some variability in the needs most likely to be addressed between youth at different overall levels of risk. Peer relations, family circumstances, and substance abuse had the best match for high-risk youth, with around 50.00% having these need areas addressed. For low-risk youth, substance abuse (42.86%), and surprisingly, attitudes/orientation (40.00%) had the highest matches. In the absence of our ability to make well-powered statistical comparisons, it did appear that there was a stronger focus on addressing the needs of high-risk youth, which is consistent with RNR and the JPOs’ training. Possibly the most positive finding of this study was the low likelihood of overservicing low-risk youth. This was evident both in the number of services received, and in the low rates of overprescription in need areas” (p. 464-465).

Translating Research into Practice

“These findings add support for the notion that the risk principle can be successfully adopted in probation practice when good implementation and quality assurance is followed. The risk principle is critical because it minimizes juvenile justice involvement with low-risk youth. There is evidence that after adoption of risk assessment, some probation offices continue to overservice low-risk youth, which leads to no decrease in costs and may simply result in more violations or new arrests for low-risk youth. Thus, the low rate of overprescription for low need youth in this study was a very positive finding and suggests there is value in using structured implementation protocols involving adoption of RNR-based policies and staff training” (p. 464).

“It can take 3 years for a new risk assessment procedure to be implemented well enough to demonstrate an impact on higher level outcomes, such as recidivism. If one considers need-to-service matching to be a complex skill that requires considerable practice and oversight, it is possible that JPOs need longer than the 10-month study period used in order to become adept at assigning services to match needs. These points highlight the good adherence to the risk principle in this relatively short-term study as a positive finding, indicating adoption of structured policies, procedures, staff training, and supervisory oversight were beneficial for good practice” (p. 465).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“An important next step is to examine whether youth with an overall good match of needs to services had lower recidivism rates than those with over- or underprescription of services. For example, Vieira et al.’s (2009) study of the YLS/CMI found that youth who obtained services that addressed their criminogenic needs had a recidivism rate of 25% compared to 75% for youth whose services did not match identified needs, irrespective of risk levels. For high-risk youth in particular, Luong and Wormith (2011) found the likelihood of recidivism was reduced by 38% when interventions matched their needs but increased by 82% when interventions were underprescribed. As previously mentioned, the goal of the current study was to examine implementation of the need principle. Future research should examine the impact of integrating the risk and need principles on recidivism, which requires slightly different research methods (e.g., the match would be based on what services were received rather those referred” (p. 465).

“[T]here is a strong need for researchers to come to a consensus on the best methods for measuring need-to-service match and to conduct more studies that will provide guidance to JPOs about how to prioritize needs in case plans for young offenders. As we described earlier in this paper, studies have used many different methods to identify needs and to define match. Few if any, consider these measures within the context of probation policies and the feasibility of case plans for the youth and families. The current study indicates that the approach used can have a significant barring on conclusions. With respect to prioritization, researchers should examine whether there is a greater benefit on recidivism reduction when probation officers prioritize some need areas over others, particularly those found to have the strongest association with recidivism (e.g., personality/behavior, peer relations, and for youth, substance abuse)” (p. 465).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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