Cover: Risk and Needs Assessments in Prisons

Risk and Needs Assessments in Prisons

Identifying High-Priority Needs for Using Evidence-Based Practices

Published Sep 9, 2020

by Joe Russo, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Dulani Woods, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Questions

  1. What are the high-level challenges that a prison system faces to fully engage and utilize the RNA process?
  2. What are the challenges associated with selecting RNA tools to use in a prison system?
  3. What are the specific challenges associated with administering assessments on inmates?
  4. What are the specific challenges associated with putting RNA results to use with respect to programming?

As of 2017, 83 percent of state inmates and 49 percent of federal inmates released from U.S. prisons were rearrested within nine years and eight years, respectively. Implementing evidence-based rehabilitative interventions to reduce recidivism begins with valid risk and needs assessment (RNA) tools. In a prison setting, these tools allow staff to make informed decisions about inmates in their charge, but successfully implementing these tools can be challenging. Prison systems are highly complex, are often underresourced, and might lack the internal capacity to effectively implement RNAs in their operations. Furthermore, it can be difficult to change institutional culture to accept an evidence-based approach in an environment in which custody objectives are paramount.

To examine this issue, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), supported by the RAND Corporation in partnership with the University of Denver, hosted a two-day workshop to examine the use of RNA tools in prisons. During this meeting, four major themes were identified: organizational issues, the selection and implementation of RNA tools, the administration of assessments, and programming. Workshop participants called for additional training and guidance for leadership, evaluation of RNA tools, and research assessing the effectiveness of approaches to assessments and programming.

Key Findings

In many prisons, there is a historical divide between security and treatment objectives

  • Custody concerns take priority over all other objectives, and effective programming cannot occur in an institution that is not safe and secure.
  • Many staff members have only a superficial knowledge of the principles and science behind RNA tools and how they align with the overarching agency mission.

Prison systems lack the capacity to properly evaluate RNA tools

  • RNA tools are used to inform important decisions related to custody levels, prioritization for programming, and eligibility for parole. Therefore, these decisions have significant consequences for public safety and for the inmate whose liberty might be at stake. Workshop participants noted that agencies need better access to objective and up-to-date information before purchasing and implementing a new RNA tool.

Staff members sometimes lack the training necessary to work with inmates during assessments

  • Staff members might not have the skills to circumvent barriers related to gender, culture, or language, and this can be detrimental to assessment effectiveness. Also, staff might not consistently score the same inmate the same way, which could negatively affect the performance of the tool and resulting programming decisions.

Even if RNA tools are implemented accurately and reliably, program delivery challenges could remain

  • Workshop participants argued that the lack of a taxonomy of correctional programs and processes, as well as standards and common terminology, can make it challenging to determine whether programs have been implemented with fidelity and why some programs might be achieving better outcomes than others.


  • Training and guidebooks should be developed for leadership on the state of knowledge of RNA principles and how evidence-based practices can enhance institutional security.
  • A mechanism should be developed for the regular dissemination of useful information in digestible formats (e.g., trade magazines, journals).
  • Research should be conducted to develop evidence-based guidelines to assist agencies in determining the need for tool validation in their settings and recommended revalidation frequency.
  • A consumer guide should be developed to assist agencies in determining which questions to ask when considering acquiring and implementing a new RNA tool.
  • A scientific research organization (e.g., the National Academy of Sciences, NIJ) should convene a "state of the science" forum to examine and assess RNA methods.
  • NIJ should evaluate RNA tools in the same way that it evaluates such technologies as body armor and body-worn cameras.
  • Research should be conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches, including training, continuous quality improvement, proficiency monitoring, and RNA audits.
  • Research should be conducted to examine and assess the techniques and approaches that can improve the validity of assessment results.
  • A taxonomy of correctional programming should be developed along with potential outcome measures to evaluate program integrity.
  • Research should be conducted to better understand the factors that influence responsivity.
  • Process and impact evaluations should be conducted so that there is a better understanding of what works and why.
  • Infrastructure should be developed to provide ongoing support for research to produce the evidence around new programs.
  • Criteria (e.g., minimum qualifications) should be developed for curriculum facilitators.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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