Structured Decision-Making Improves Quality of Offender Supervision

Structured Decision-Making Improves Quality of Offender Supervision

Forensic Training AcademyThe quality of case management plans for supervised offenders is better when risk/needs assessments and structured decision-making tools are utilized. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.


Psychology, Public Policy and LawFeatured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2016, Vol. 22, No. 2, 221-233


Finding the Right Focus: Improving the Link Between Risk/Needs Assessment and Case Management in Probation



Jacqueline Bosker, University of Applied Sciences Utrecht

Cilia Witteman, Radbound University Nijmegen



In this article, the authors report a study into the Dutch probation service about the question whether structured decision making about case management plans does or does not improve the quality of these plans, and subsequently improves the effectiveness of offender supervision. Two samples of nearly 300 case management plans each were compared. In the first sample a tool for risk/needs assessment was used to assess the risks and needs but decision making about the subsequent case management plan was not structured (RISc2-sample). In the second sample professionals used the same tool for risk and needs assessment but now it also contained a section for structured decision making about the case management plan (RISc3-sample). Results showed that in the RISc3-sample the quality of the plans was significantly better than in the RISc2-sample: a better match between criminogenic needs and goals, a better match between goals of the offender and goals in the plan, more focus on strengthening social bonds, and a better match between risk of recidivism and intensity of the plan. Some significant correlations between the quality of the plans and the effectiveness of offender supervision were found, indicating that improving case management plans by structured decision support indeed can contribute to probation practice.


Structured decision-making, risk/needs assessment, case management, probation, task separation

Summary of the Research

“Correctional professionals such as probation officers support offenders to desist from crime and become prosocial members of society. There is a growing body of empirical evidence that helps probation officers to perform that task. Research about what works in reducing recidivism has led to some stable and usable insights for correctional practice. Andrews and Bonta transformed this knowledge into a working model for correctional practice that contains a number of principles for effective practice, the Risk–Need–Responsivity (RNR) model. According to the needs principle treatment services should focus on dynamic risk factors (criminogenic needs) that are associated with recidivism. In several studies significant correlations have been found between the number of criminogenic needs targeted during case management and recidivism” (p. 221).

“Often, a probation officers’ first step in working with an offender is to develop a case management plan that describes the desired change and the actions to realize that change, formulated in goals and interventions such as behavioral treatment or practical support. The last decennia it has become generally accepted that instruments for risk and needs assessment should be used for decision making about these plans. Such instruments contain a checklist of risk factors (and in some instruments protective factors) for criminal behavior, meant to help correctional practitioners assess the risk of recidivism and the criminogenic needs” (p. 222).

“The Dutch probation service uses an instrument for structured risk and needs assessment called the Recidive Inschattings Schalen (Recidivism Assessment Scales, RISc), that has been developed from a third generation into a fourth-generation risk/needs assessment… RISc contains the following 12 criminogenic needs: (a) offending history, (b) current offense, (c) accommodation, (d) education and employment, (e) income and financial management, (f) relationships with partner, family, and relatives, (g) relationships with friends and acquaintances, (h) drug abuse, (i) alcohol abuse, (j) emotional well-being, (k) thinking and behavior, and (l) attitudes” (p. 223).

“After the completion of the risk and needs assessment, probation officers formulate case management plans that are the basis for a presentence report or offender supervision…RISc2 contained a section where probation officers could describe their decisions about the various domains, without being supported by the instrument. In RISc3 the decision about the case management plan has been divided into several process steps that probation officers must pass successively using a computer-based decision support tool. In the first step, the risk and needs profile is shown on screen. Probation officers then describe and prioritize the criminogenic needs that should change. When probation officers decide not to take action on a criminogenic need that was assessed to be present, they are asked to explain their decision. Next, for each criminogenic need that was given a high, medium, or low priority, the instrument makes a digital page where the goals that should be achieved and the interventions planned to realize these goals are described. The instrument gives suggestions for interventions when offenders meet the inclusion criteria. Suggestions that are overruled should be explained. Because in some cases several suggestions are given by the tool, overruling some of the suggestions may be necessary. Third, the sanction and special conditions are described, and if thought necessary it can be decided to put in specific control measures such as electronic monitoring. In the fourth step, the instrument gives a suggestion about the intensity of the supervision, based on the assessed risks of recidivism and harm, the risk of noncompliance, and the necessity for extra guidance by the supervising officer. Again, the probation officer decides about the level of intensity. Finally, an overview of the case management plan is presented” (p.223).

The Present Study

The current study examined the quality of structured decision reports on the effectiveness of offender supervision by comparing case management plans based on the RISc2 and RISc3. Two random samples of 300 cases per instrument were generated using files of offenders who were under probationer supervision and had a case management plan based on a risk needs assessment.

“The samples were taken from two cohorts of supervisions in the context of a suspended prison sentence in the Netherlands. The cases had to have an actual and complete risk assessment including a case management plan that was made between 180 days before and 90 days after the start of the supervision, and therefore could be considered an assessment that represents the offenders’ situation at the start of the supervision” (p. 224).


“To assess if case management plans in the RISc3 sample were of higher quality than case management plans in the RISc2 sample, five quality criteria were formulated based on research about effective practice and desistance from crime. We found that the quality of the case management plans was better when probation officers used RISc3. The quality of the plans improved significantly for four of the five quality criteria used in this study: the match between the criminogenic needs and the goals, the match between the goals of the offender and the goals in the plan, the focus on strengthening social bonds, and the match between the risk of recidivism and the intensity of the plan. No significant

improvement was found for the match between the criminogenic

needs and interventions in the plan.  In the RISc2-sample, case management plans had a strong focus on tackling needs regarding cognitive skills and addiction. When friends, education/work, finance, and accommodation were assessed as a criminogenic need, often no goals or interventions were formulated in the plans to meet these needs. The case management plans based on RISc3 were more balanced and targeted both needs regarding individual capital (skills, attitude, addiction), social capital (relationships, work) and basic needs (accommodation, finance)” (p. 229).

Translating Research into Practice

“The findings support the use of fourth-generation risk and needs assessment tools. Such tools include a section for decision making about case management plans in order to improve the match between the assessed risks, criminogenic needs and responsivity, and the goals and interventions in the plan. Several

studies showed that in probation practice this link often is unsatisfactory, whereas a good link between risk/needs assessment and case management can contribute to the reduction of recidivism. Based on the results in this study, we think that especially formulating the targets for change per criminogenic need, as is done in RISc3, improved the quality of the case management plans and resulted in plans that are more complete and have a better match to the assessed needs” (p. 229). However, not all probation officers are receptive to the additional work structured decision-making entails.

“Second, the findings of this study underline the relevance of including the offender in the decision making about case management plans. Including offenders’ goals in the plan was found to be positively correlated to goal attainment” (p. 229).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“There is hardly any evidence to show which criminogenic needs should be given priority in which case. More research on this question is needed and can help probation officers improve decision making on this matter” (p. 231).

“More research about the contribution of the quality of the case management plans to the effectiveness of offender supervision is relevant for probation practice, and may help correctional practitioners in their decision making about case management plans. The data in this study were not suitable to go into that question sufficiently. Additional research about this topic should incorporate several measures of effectiveness, such as goal attainment and recidivism, and differences in characteristics of the offender and of the probation officer should be taken into account” (p. 231).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Sarah Hartigan

Sara Hartigan is a second year Forensic Psychology Master’s student at John Jay and hope to obtain a Ph.D. in Clinical Forensic Psychology in the future. My main areas of interest include clinical evaluations and developing treatment interventions within the forensic population.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.