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Compendium 2000 on Effective Correctional Programming

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Treatment Responsivity: Reducing Recidivism by Enhancing Treatment Effectiveness


One of the contemporary concerns in corrections is the risk management of offenders in the community. Thus, in many correctional agencies, treatment is currently viewed as an integral part of the risk management continuum, and therefore, treatment responsivity is a critical issue for correctional programs. The responsivity principle has been a largely neglected area of study, despite the fact that responsivity and other variables related to offender motivation are widely recognized as critical factors mediating the success of treatment (Brown, 1996). It is postulated that treatment readiness and responsivity must be assessed and considered in treatment planning if the maximum effectiveness of supervision and treatment programs is to be realized and if we want to ensure the successful reintegration of the offender into the community.

This chapter addresses the concept of treatment responsivity and examines a number of responsivity assessment measures currently in use. The development of a new standardized assessment battery of offender responsivity is presented, and a number of responsivity-related factors are identified and discussed in terms of their potential impact on treatment outcome. The construct of treatment responsivity is placed in a context that underscores the importance of allocating offenders to programs in the most effective manner and of identifying factors that might mediate the effectiveness of treatment services.


The research of Andrews and colleagues outlines the four general principles of classification for purposes of effective correctional programming (Andrews, Kiessling, Robinson, & Mickus, 1986; Andrews, Zinger, Hoge, Bonta, Gendreau, & Cullen, 1990). These principles are based on their detailed analysis of programs that showed above-average success in reducing recidivism.

The risk principle states that the intensity of the treatment intervention should be matched to the risk level of the offender. This is because research has demonstrated that higher risk cases tend to respond better to intensive and extensive service, while low risk cases respond better to minimal or no intervention. Rehabilitation programs should, therefore, be reserved for higher risk offenders in order to achieve the greatest reductions in recidivism. The reality is that low risk offenders usually do well without intensive treatment. Also, there may be a harmful effect by putting low risk offenders in programs along with high-risk offenders, as one would run the risk of disrupting the low risk offender's positive social networks.

Once offenders are appropriately matched in terms of their risk level, attention should be directed to the sorts of needs to be addressed in treatment. The need principle distinguishes between criminogenic and non-criminogenic needs. The former are dynamic risk factors (Gendreau, Cullen, & Bonta, 1994), (a subset of an offender's risk level), which, if changed, reduce the likelihood of criminal conduct. In contrast, such non-criminogenic needs as anxiety and self-esteem (Gendreau et al., 1994) may be appropriate targets when working on responsivity issues; however, such needs would be inappropriate targets for risk reduction, as their resolution would not have a significant impact on recidivism.

The responsivity principle states that styles and modes of treatment service must be closely matched to the preferred learning style and abilities of the offender (Andrews et al., 1986). Treatment effectiveness depends on matching types of treatment and therapists to types of clients. Effective matching of offenders' and counsellors' “styles”, as well as intensity of intervention, is central to the principle of treatment responsivity (Bonta, 1995).

The professional discretion principle states that, having reviewed risk, need and responsivity considerations as they apply to a particular offender, there is a need for professional judgement. The most appropriate treatment decisions include professional judgement, which in turn incorporates legal, ethical, humanitarian, cost-efficiency and clinical standards. In some cases, then, the application of professional judgement will (and should) override recommendations based on numerical scores alone, thereby improving the final offender assessment on programming strategies.


The responsivity principle

Three components of responsivity include matching the following treatment approach with the learning style of the offender, the characteristics of the offender with those of the counsellor, and the skills of the counsellor with the type of program conducted. Offenders differ significantly, not only in their level of motivation to participate in treatment, but also in terms of their responsivity to various styles or modes of intervention. According to the responsivity principle, these factors impact directly on the effectiveness of correctional treatment and, ultimately, on recidivism.

If the responsivity principle is not adhered to, treatment pro-grams can fail, not because they do not have therapeutic integrity or competent therapists, but rather because offender responsivity related barriers, such as cognitive/intellectual deficits, were not addressed. This last factor, for example, could prevent the offender from understanding the content of the program. Consequently, various offender characteristics must be considered when assigning offenders to treatment programs.

Internal responsivity factors

We can consider responsivity factors as individual factors that interfere with or facilitate learning. The assessment of such factors is the first step in helping us develop the best strategies as to how to best address an offender's criminogenic needs. This, in turn, can ensure that offenders derive the maximum therapeutic benefit from treatment. Therefore, prior to targeting criminogenic needs, it is important that responsivity factors be examined to prepare the offender for treatment.

The responsivity principle dictates that treatment programs should be delivered in a manner that facilitates the learning of new prosocial skills by the offender. Factors that interfere with or facilitate learning can be broken down into internal and external responsivity factors.

Internal factors refer to individual offender characteristics such as: motivation, personality characteristics (i.e., psychopathy, inter-personal anxiety, depression, mental illness, self-esteem, poor social skills) cognitive/intellectual deficits (i.e., low intelligence, concrete-oriented thinking, inadequate problem solving skills, poor verbal skills, low verbal intelligence, language deficits) and demographic variables (i.e., age, gender, race, ethnicity and socio-economic level) (Bonta, 1995; Van Hooris, 1997).

External factors refer to counsellor characteristics (i.e., some counsellors may work better with certain types of offenders) and setting characteristics (i.e., institution versus community, individual versus group).

Specific internal responsivity factors are represented in most settings. Consideration of gender issues, ethnicity, age, social background, and life experiences may prove to be important for some types of treatment because they contribute to the engagement of offenders into treatment and the development of therapeutic alliance (Dana, 1993). For instance, recent research indicates that women offenders score significantly lower than male offenders on measures of self-esteem and self-efficacy (McMurran, Tyler, Hogue, Cooper, Dunseath, & Mc Daid, 1998). Low self-esteem may be a responsivity factor that needs to be addressed in some women offenders; however, the link between self-esteem and criminal behaviour is weak. Other ways that gender as a responsivity factor can be seen is the concern women express for childcare, men dominating co-ed treatment groups, and women with a history of abuse being subjected to confrontational groups led by male counsellors.

An offender's level of intellectual functioning is an important responsivity consideration. According to Fabiano, Porporino, and Robinson (1991), cognitive skills programs are more effective with offenders of average to high-average intelligence and are less effective with offenders of below-average intelligence.

Similarly, age may be viewed as a responsivity factor. Those who have worked with young offenders, for example, can easily understand the challenge they pose in the delivery of treatment programs (Cady, Winters, Jordan, Solberg, & Stinchfield, 1996). Certainly, the “average” young offender would present different challenges to the effective delivery of a treatment than would be the case for an “average” adult offender. Age, in and of itself however, does not provide the necessary degree of precision required when the assessment of responsivity is the issue. It is important, for instance, to have adequate information on the individual's level of maturity, as this will effect how the individual views the need for change, how he or she relates to others, etc. Age alone does not provide enough information, as maturity level can vary widely within the same general age group (i.e., you may find as much variation in maturity levels within a young offender group as you would between a young offender group and an adult offender group) (Cady et al., 1996).

Using gender and maturity level to provide the context, then, it is easy to imagine how ignoring responsivity factors can result in the inaccurate assessment of an individual's treatment motivation or readiness, and how this may seriously impede an offender's compliance with treatment.

Motivation as a dynamic variable

Motivation may be operationally defined as “the probability that a person will enter into, continue, and adhere to a specific strategy” (Miller & Rollnick, 1991). The traditional view of motivation was very narrow and simplistic. Motivation was defined as a personality characteristic or problem. Thus, motivation was used as an adjective, and the desire to change was perceived as a quality one had or did not have. This view failed to include all the dynamic factors that influence a person's desire to change his or her behaviour, and has been replaced in recent years with a view that emphasizes the complexity of change. The interactionalist view asserts that internal and external factors influence the change process. From this perspective, motivation is seen as an interpersonal process that can be influenced in a positive way by the professional (Miller & Rollnick, 1991).

In this context, motivation is dynamic and, therefore, at least some responsibility falls to the therapist to motivate the offender (Miler & Rollnick, 1991). The counsellor must strive to create effective motivational choices in order to increase the probability that offenders will respond favourably to correctional programming. This includes enhancing offender motivation and dealing with resistant clients after the pre-treatment assessment of treatment readiness.

Most offenders entering treatment are unmotivated and resist-ant to treatment, and, moreover, most offenders have multiple treatment needs. To further compound the situation, offenders often do not acknowledge that they have problems. Generally they enter treatment because of pressure from external sources, such as family, or to secure an earlier release. Offenders who are resistant to treatment may well require pre-treatment priming (motivational counselling) in order for the formal treatment pro-gram to be effective.

Many offenders view their criminal behaviour in an egosyntonic manner. That is, they are relatively unconcerned about their actions, except in terms of legal consequences. Accordingly, offenders often feel coerced into treatment, consenting only because the contingencies for refusing to participate are sufficiently negative. Minimization of the effects of their behaviour on others, denial of responsibility, and rationalization of their law violations are common among offenders. Treatment engagement must address these obstacles, primarily by focusing on therapeutic alliance and assisting offenders to develop a cost-benefit analysis for comparison purposes (Preston & Murphy, 1997). Further, the content, intensity, and style of intervention must be consistent with the offender's current stage in the change process. This complex inter-action forms the cornerstone for incorporating motivational inter-viewing into correctional programming (Miller & Rollnick, 1991). Treatment progress may therefore depend on the match between the offender and type of treatment modality, as well as, the interaction between counsellor and offender. Currently, however, there is little empirical data to indicate the relative contribution of these factors to treatment progress (Serin & Kennedy, 1998). Clearly, there is a need for more research in this area.

External responsivity factors

Correctional Counsellor/Worker Characteristics

Regardless of the therapeutic orientation or the characteristics of the client group, a client is more apt to engage in treatment and treatment is more likely to be effective if a good therapeutic alliance is created (Cartwright, 1980, 1987). For example, many researchers in the general psychotherapy field are of the opinion that the single most powerful predictor of the outcome of psychotherapy is the quality of the therapeutic alliance (Luborsky, Crits-Cristoph, Mintz, & Auerbach, 1988; Najavitis & Weis, 1994).

Unfortunately, there has been considerably less research examining the importance of the relationship between counsellors and offenders. With the exception of the CaVIC (Canadian Volunteers in Corrections) research conducted by Andrews and Kiessling (1980) on characteristics of effective probation officers, and the differential treatment research of Barkwell (1980) there is little systematic research on the quality of the therapeutic alliance and the interaction effects of counsellor and offender characteristics in the field of correctional treatment. This is a much needed area of research, as it has often been found that a group of counsellors working in a common setting and offering the same treatment approach can produce dramatic differences in terms of client attrition and successful outcome. Counsellor attitudes and competence that do not match the aims and content of a program may lower treatment integrity and reduce its effectiveness. The Maudsley Alcohol Pilot Project (MAPP), for example, found that community based generic workers often lacked therapeutic commitment towards their clients which limited their ability to deliver effective treatment (Cartwright, Hyams, & Spratley, 1996).

Appropriate role modelling is also a critical aspect of the counsellor offender relationship. An important role for correctional workers is to function as competent role models. According to Andrews and Bonta (1994), effective workers are able to establish high quality relationships with the client, approve of the client's anti-criminal expressions (reinforcement), and disapprove of the client's pro-criminal expressions (punishment), while, at the same time, demonstrating anti-criminal alternatives (modelling).

Setting Characteristics/Modes of Program Delivery

Some research has suggested that appropriate treatment pro-grams delivered in the community produce two to three times greater reductions in recidivism than appropriate treatment pro-grams delivered in prison (Andrews et al., 1990). There are different issues and constraints for each setting. For example, with institutional and treatment programs in community correctional centres, offenders typically show up for treatment as a much more captive audience. In the community or outpatient settings, the no shows rate is higher, presumably because the client has more freedom to choose. It is important to understand that external factors, in isolation, may not impact on responsivity, but rather those staff characteristics or setting characteristics interact with offender characteristics to affect responsivity, either positively or negatively.


Current measures

Although responsivity is clearly identified as the third principle of effective correctional treatment, there is a paucity of standardized assessment measures in existence. The need for a systematic and comprehensive assessment of responsivity and its related constructs (i.e., motivation and treatment readiness) is essential for the successful planning, implementation and delivery of appropriate and effective treatment programs. This is especially true when reintegrating offenders into the community. Many offenders, for example, have a special condition to participate in treatment while under community supervision. For these offenders, the risk assessment clearly indicates the need for treatment to reduce their risk of reoffending. In order to make sound release decisions and enhance the protection of the public by effectively managing the risk that offenders pose; we would want to be able to assess their treatability (level of motivation and responsivity to treatment) prior to releasing them into the community. Simply relying on their self-reported motivation to change is obviously not sufficient, as the veracity of these admissions is questionable. Furthermore, offenders who say they are motivated to change are not necessarily those who present the highest risk of reoffending. In addition, motivation is a dynamic factor and, as such, can change over time and therefore needs to be reassessed over time. Needless to say, this factor is important in the assessment and ongoing measurement of progress in therapy, which, in turn, is critical to effective risk management of offenders in the community (McMurran et al., 1998).

The Client Management Classification (CMC) is a widely used responsivity tool in corrections. This instrument was developed as part of the Wisconsin Risk and Needs Assessment system, and became part of the National Institute of Corrections Model Probation and Parole Project (National Institute of Corrections, 1981). CMC differentiates five offender profiles and prescribes detailed supervision guidelines for each profile. It also facilitates case planning. According to Harris (1994), the goal of the CMC is to “tailor supervision strategies and styles to the characteristics of the offender” (page 155).

By identifying offender characteristics and recommending supervision strategies, the CMC represents an attempt to match offenders and staff based on responsivity characteristics. For example, one type of offender category of the CMC is the Limit Setter (LS). The LS offender is characterized as comfortable with a criminal life-style and long involvement with criminal activities. This individual is often reasonably capable of functioning adequately in society, however, he/she may often minimize or deny personal problems, appear to be unmotivated to use his/her abilities in a pro-social manner, and he/she is manipulative. For this type of offender the CMC recommends that the client-agent relationship be a direct one, with a willingness to confront their failure to comply with the rules. It is also suggested that the agent be on guard to avoid manipulation, and should anticipate hostility from these clients, who resent interference with their lives.

On the other end, the CMC identifies the Environmental Structure (ES) client. Characteristics of this type of offender include a lack of social and vocational skills, and a low level of intellectual functioning. A lack of foresight about consequences of criminal activity and high degrees of impulsivity are common traits. The client-agent relationship with these types of cases would be more giving and caring. A guidance and supportive role would be recommended.

The CMC demonstrates the potential of assessing responsivity characteristics.

The Jesness Personality Inventory (Jesness, 1983) is another instrument that can help assess offenders' “personality” traits. This instrument is the second most widely used personality inventory in juvenile court clinics in the United States (Pinkerman, Haynes & Keiser, 1993). The Jesness was designed specifically for use with juvenile delinquent populations both male and female, ages 8-18 (Pinsoneault, 1998). Similar to the Client Management Classification, the Jesness Personality Inventory helps identify offender personality characteristics that can be an obstacle to treatment. Other responsivity factors that should be assessed include intelligence, motivational level, learning disabilities, reading ability, denial/minimization, inter-personal anxiety, cultural issues, and communication barriers.

The Level of Service Inventory-Ontario Revision (LSI-OR) (Andrews, Bonta, & Wormith, 1995) is the first risk assessment instrument to incorporate a section on “special responsivity considerations”. It should be noted that, although the responsivity items are not tallied as part of the risk score or level, they are factors to be considered in the broader case management of the offender, and may indirectly impact on an offender's dynamic risk level. The special responsivity considerations measured by the instrument are: motivation as a barrier, denial/minimization, interpersonal anxiety, cultural issues, low intelligence and communication barriers.

A Model for assessment of treatment responsivity

Prochaska and his colleagues have conducted important research on the process of psychotherapy change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1986; Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992), in the areas of substance abuse, criminality, and a variety of high-risk health behaviors (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1992). These researchers believed that individuals vary in terms of their stage of readiness for change and, as such, different therapeutic approaches/techniques need to be applied, depending on the individual's readiness to take action. To ensure their intervention is sensitive to the clients' level of readiness, Prochaska developed and validated a self-report measure, the University of Rhode Island Change Assessment (URICA), on various samples. According to this model, individuals in the process of change move through a series of stages prior to changing their problematic behaviour. The five stages of change that have been identified are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation/ determination, action, and maintenance.

In the precontemplation stage, the individual is not considering the possibility of change and does not think he/she has a problem. Individuals in this stage typically perceive that they are being coerced into treatment to satisfy someone else's need. The verbalization typically is “I don't have any problems that need to be addressed. I am only here because my parole officer/partner/ National Parole Board said I had to see a counsellor”. Prochaska refers to this stage as “perceived coercion”. Anyone working in the criminal justice system knows that, in fact, it is not perceived coercion, it is real. If the offender does not participate in treatment then there is little probability that recidivism can be reduced or that the risk level of the offender can be managed effectively.

The contemplation stage is characterized by ambivalence; in other words, individuals may simultaneously, or in rapid alter-nation, consider and reject reasons to change. At this stage individuals are aware that a problem exists, but are not ready to commit to therapy. The verbalization typically is “I am interested in learning more about this treatment group, but I cannot participate yet because I am just too busy”.

The preparation/determination stage is characterized by a combination of intention and behavioural criteria. Individuals at this stage may report that they have made some small behavioural changes. Miller and Rollnick (1991) refer to this stage as the window of opportunity, which opens only for a limited period of time, however, clinical experience working with offenders in this stage would suggest that it is not a window, but is at best, a porthole of opportunity.

Individuals in the action stage have made a commitment to change and are engaging in actions to bring about change; in other words, they are actively doing things to change or modify their behaviour, experiences, or environment in order to over-come their problems. At this stage they are typically involved in therapy or counselling.

Lastly, individuals in the maintenance stage are working hard to sustain the significant behavioural changes they have made and are actively working to prevent minor slips or major relapses. This stage is not static, but rather dynamic particularly when the individual is exposed to high-risk situations. The problem is not that offenders do not change, but rather that they do not maintain the changes. The criteria for assessing someone to be in the maintenance stage are being able to engage in new incompatible behaviour for a period of six months.

This transtheoretical treatment model (Prochaska & DiClemente; Norcross, 1992) highlights the importance of treatment readiness and is consistent with the responsivity concept.

Although the assessment work of Prochaska and his colleagues is evolving, it provides a starting point for our work on the development of a multi-method assessment strategy of treatment readiness and responsivity with offenders (Serin & Kennedy, 1998). Its application to correctional intervention with a wide population of offenders, representing a range of offence types and settings, may well provide the conceptual focus that has been lacking.

Recent developments

A theoretically-based, multi-method assessment protocol for treatment readiness, responsivity and gain was developed in conjunction with the Research Branch of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) in order to contribute to the broader literature on effective correctional programming. The intent was to pilot an assessment battery that could be administered in conjunction with a range of correctional programs. Accordingly, the protocol was developed for generic application rather than for a particular type of treatment program (Kennedy & Serin, 1997). This was the first step towards a systematic protocol for the assessment of treatment responsivity in the context of a risk/need management framework, in which treatment is an integral part of the risk management continuum.

The second step is now completed and an interview-based assessment protocol for treatment readiness, responsivity and gain was developed (Serin & Kennedy, 1998). A set of guide-lines for counsellors' ratings and a more explicit scoring scheme was establish to maximize reliability. Plans are also underway to develop a training package, to implement the revised protocol with a wide range of correctional programs and to begin to collect data on the assessment protocol.

Pre-treatment responsivity assessment

To augment offender assessment, as well as select and allocate treatment regimes, it would be useful to assess treatment readiness, motivation and treatability in an objective fashion. The veracity of an offender's self-reported motivation to change may be questionable, particularly when he/she is attempting to secure an earlier release and, consequently, such information should never be used in isolation. Some examples of items that should be considered in a responsivity assessment instrument would include whether or not the offender: recognizes he/she has a problem, is able to set treatment goals, is motivated for treatment, accepts responsibility for his/her problems, understands the costs/benefits of treatment, has previously engaged in treatment, (with data on the progress made therein), has access to the support of significant others, support for their involvement in treatment, and is able to express his/her feelings and emotions. Additionally, one may wish to consider the offender's, personal views about treatment providers, his/her sense of self-efficacy in making changes and leading a prosocial life, and if he/she is cognizant of the emotional demands of treatment (Kennedy, 1999).

Personality and attitudinal characteristics

Offenders' personality and attitudinal characteristics are important responsivity factors, as they will impact on the design of a treatment program. Temperamental and personality factors conducive to criminal activity such as grandiosity, callousness, impulsivity, anger problems, egocentrism and poor problem solving skills are all potential responsivity factors to consider, since they can effect an offenders willingness or ability to engage in treatment programs. Attitudinal characteristics that should be assessed include antisocial attitudes, values and beliefs, techniques of neutralization, attitudes towards victims and procriminal associates and isolation from anti-criminal others (Kennedy, 1999).

Treatment participation

As indicated earlier, simply relying on offenders' self-report of how much he/she benefited from participation in treatment is insufficient. In a similar vein, program completion, in and of itself, does not pro-vide us with any additional information in terms of how to effectively manage the risk level of the offender. Despite the obvious importance of measuring progress in treatment this has been an often-neglected aspect of assessment. It is important for staff to measure knowledge of program content, skills acquisition, individual and group disclosure, offender confidence, transfer and generalization of skills to real life situations, insight, attendance, participation, performance and therapeutic alliance (Kennedy, 1999).

Of course, the true effects of responsivity and other (motivational) factors on treatment can only be determined by examining recidivism rates over extended periods of time. If offenders who both acknowledge responsibility for their crimes and attend and actively participate in therapy, have lowered recidivism rates compared to those who do not, then the motivational (responsivity) variables have demonstrated meaning beyond treatment gains measured during, or immediately upon completion of treatment.


The principle of responsivity, which includes the appropriate matching of offenders to programs and staff, and the identification of factors that might mediate the effectivness of treatment services, has not been given the attention it deserves. Offenders are not all alike, nor are all staff, settings, or treatment programs. The matching of offenders to treatment, counsellors to offenders, and counsellors to the treatment groups that best match their skills, can improve the effectiveness of correctional intervention. Responsivity should therefore be an important consideration in risk management and risk reduction. Failure to appropriately assess and consider responsivity factors may not only undermine treatment gains and waste treatment resources, but also may also decrease public safety.

Best practices with regard to responsivity starts with good assessment. Knowing an offender's motivation level, cognitive ability, personality traits, and maturity is essential to good case planning. Following assessment, a good case plan takes into account factors related to the treatment settings, the treatment program options and staff characteristics. For example, having a range of treatment settings available (i.e., residential, outpatient, secure, open, etc.) gives the counsellor more options with regard to placing the offender in the most appropriate treatment setting. Finally, understanding the skills and interests of staff should also become part of the case planning process, and will allow for more effective matching of offenders and counsellors.

Bonta (1996) suggests that fourth generation risk assessments will, in all likelihood, include the assessment of possible responsivity factors. If we can successfully assess responsivity then we can design even more effective treatment services for offenders in the future. Research has demonstrated that the average reduction in recidivism for appropriate treatment is 25% (Gendreau & Goggin, 1996). Under conditions where responsivity factors are accurately assessed and adequately addressed, we can look forward to a greater number of offenders successfully completing treatment. Consequently, a higher degree of public safety will be achieved through even greater reductions in recidivism.

1 Ottawa District Psychologist, Correctional Service of Canada. The author would like to thank Dr. Alex Loucks, and Michel Larivière, Correctional Service of Canada, and Dr. Ed Latessa, University of Cincinnati, for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.


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