In Depth: Using the Risk+Harm+Need Model

The Risk+Harm+Need Model can be used to better determine the appropriate criminal justice response. This graduated decision-making model factors in three critical dimensions: risk to public safety, severity of harm caused and the needs that must be addressed to prevent further crime.


Assessing risk

Considerable research supports the use of assessments in predicting the likelihood that an individual will commit another crime and determining the interventions most likely to reduce that risk.

Risk assessments have evolved significantly over the past several decades to determine specific risks. For example, risk assessments can help to predict the likelihood that an individual will fail to appear in court (useful for pretrial decision-making) or commit another crime. Depending on the purpose of the assessment, it may include static factors (i.e., that never change) such as the age of the individual when first arrested and the seriousness of the offense, as well as dynamic factors (i.e., that can change) such as anti-social attitudes or participation in school and other activities. Currently there are efforts underway to develop a risk tool for initial contact, i.e., by law enforcement when determining arrest.

Determining the severity of harm

Because the Blueprint for Shared Safety puts crime survivors at the center of its approach, it is essential that systems appropriately respond to the harm caused by crime. Historically, our criminal justice systems have interpreted the needs of the victim primarily in terms of retributive justice. The risk+harm+need model recognizes that individuals who have caused the most serious harm should receive a more severe sanction, including incarceration. But punishment should not be confused or conflated with addressing the needs of the victim. Holding a person accountable for harming someone is not sufficient to address the trauma that victim has experienced.

Identifying needs to prevent future crimes

In addition to assessing risk to public safety, complex risk assessments also determine the dynamic factors that put an individual most at risk of committing another crime. Research has identified eight major needs (also known as risk factors) related to recidivism:

  • presence of anti-social behavior
  • anti-social personality pattern
  • anti-social cognition
  • anti-social associates
  • family and/or marital
  • school and/or work
  • leisure and/or recreation
  • substance abuse

Even though mental health is not on this list, the Blueprint recognizes that these risk factors and mental health are significantly interconnected.  Addressing these issues in isolation is far less effective and in some instances may have negative consequences. The Criminogenic Risk and Behavioral Health Needs Framework developed by the Council of State Governments Justice Center is a useful framework for integrating system responses based on individual risk factors, severity of substance abuse and mental health needs. Needs assessments can also be useful in prioritizing additional capacity.

Keep individuals at the right level of intervention

As mentioned throughout the Blueprint, it is critical that individuals not be brought deeper into the criminal justice system to address their needs if their risk to public safety or the severity of harm caused does not warrant that level of justice involvement.

Importance of validation and addressing disparities

When implementing an evidence-based assessment tool, each jurisdiction should validate the tool for use within its own population. This can be done prior to implementation using historical data or using information gathered during implementation. Until a tool has been validated for your population, you may not be benefiting accurately from its predictive abilities.

Use of risk assessment tools alone will not resolve issues of racial disparities. These tools consider many factors, such as age at first arrest, which are often racially disparate. Risk assessments can help to inform more objective decision-making, but most systems are built upon generations of systemic inequities that still have to be rooted out. Laying a risk assessment on top of these inequities could help make the system less disparate, but it will not eliminate or resolve those disparities that are currently inherent in the system.