article written by: Jane Mulcahy, PhD, Research Fellow on the Greentown Project, Research Evidence into Policy Programmes and Practice (REPPP) at the University of Limerick.

The ACEs in these three realms – household, community, and environment – intertwine throughout people’s lives, and affect the viability of families, communities, organizations, and systems. The backside of this handout also covers five important findings from the ACEs study. This graphic was created by PACEs Connection with inspiration and guidance from Building Community Resilience Collaborative and Networks and the International Transformational Resilience Coalition. source:

In a three-part article series, I will establish the importance of greater nervous system awareness by Probation Officers when working with people on Probation. In part 1, I focus on risk management and the trauma blindness of the dominant approach to rehabilitation in the Probation context. In part 2, I provide an overview of attachment, interpersonal neurobiology, polyvagal theory and state-dependent functioning, explaining how and why they are relevant to offending behaviour. In part 3, I argue that Probation practice should return to its relational roots, with an emphasis on co-regulation, cultivating strengths and healing-centred engagement to better contribute to a safer, just society with less crime.

The publication of the Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) model of offender assessment and management was a pivotal moment in the “what works” correctional movement.[1]  This model became the dominant theory in applied criminology, having “moved from being a minor irritant to being a major player”[2] over the years. Today, correctional services (including the Probation Service in Ireland)[3] make widespread use of “risk science”.[4]

Actuarial risk assessment tools including the LSI/R and the YLS-CMI determine how best to intervene, and with what degree of treatment intensity for offenders with different statistical likelihoods of re-offending.[5]  Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, has argued that “failure to conduct actuarial assessment or consider its results is irrational, unscientific, unethical and unprofessional.”[6] According to Taxman and Thanner, there have been few criminological advancements in determining risk factors so as to identify appropriate programme or service placements apart from the RNR framework.[7]

Criminogenic needs are the internal and environmental factors that empirical research studies have found to be most closely related to reoffending. The “central eight” risk factors include a history of antisocial behaviour, antisocial personality, antisocial attitudes, problematic peers, addiction, school/work problems, family/marital tensions and poor use of leisure time.

The general responsivity component of the RNR assumes that cognitive social learning strategies, such as pro-social modelling, positive reinforcement and problem-solving are most effective, regardless of whether the offender is female or a member of an ethnic minority.  Specific responsivity adjusts the cognitive behavioural intervention to the learning style, level of motivation, personality, race, gender and strengths of the individual. Common responsivity barriers among offenders include “readiness to change” deficits, cognitive and intellectual impairments or inadequate social skills.[8]

McNeill, one of Scotland’s leading desistance and Probation scholars, has argued that it would be vastly preferable to develop a strengths-based desistance paradigm instead of adapting and building on RNR theory and practice.[9] He suggests that reliance on risk assessment tools and interventions has diminished the traditional Social Work focus on the quality of relationships to support positive change. McNeill and Burnett lament the demise of relationship-based practice and one-to-one counselling in the UK following its relegation to risk management with an increased emphasis on surveillance rather than support.[10]

In the infancy of the RNR model, Andrews, Bonta and their associates did not have the benefit of evidence from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child,[11] or the impressive body of work on Adverse Childhood Experiences since 1998[12]. The RNR evidence-base urgently needs to be revised in the light of these major advances.  Even the best Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) programmes may be of little rehabilitative value “until the impact of childhood trauma is addressed”.[13]

According to Hannah-Moffat, the RNR model has dictated correctional practice “by advancing a necessarily narrow and targeted view of rehabilitation”[14] based on the identification and targeting of criminogenic risks/needs through interventions with a strong emphasis on CBT. The promotion of CBT programmes is, however, premised on a mistaken and dated belief that behavioural change occurs in a “top-down” direction.[15] CBT targets the cortex, the thinking part of the brain.

Offending behaviour-oriented CBT seeks to improve insight, challenge warped core beliefs, minimisations, distorted cognitions, anti-social attitudes and improve victim empathy. [16]  However, CBT is likely to be of limited utility to “unrecovered trauma survivors”[17] whose nervous systems are “in a chronic state of defence”.[18] According to van der Kolk:

[p]sychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behavior. However, neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.[19]

In 2013, Looman and Abracen criticised the absence of focus on trauma and adversity in the RNR, calling for an approach called the RNR-I (Integrated), which they developed as Clinical Psychologists with the Correctional Services of Canada. The authors state that the RNR-I “specifically discusses issues associated with complex trauma and mental illness” on the basis that it is necessary “to provide a model that directly lists factors that must be addressed by clinicians working in the field”.[20]

Produced by The ChildTrauma Academy & Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D` source:

So-called “bottom-up hijacking” frequently afflicts trauma survivors, deactivating the cortical brain responsible for rational choice. Ogden et al. refer to autonomic dysregulation caused by chronic traumatic re-experiencing and avoidance, which means that the thinking brain becomes inaccessible.[21]  They advocate for somatosensory interventions like Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Deep Brain Reorienting which combine top-down and bottom-up modalities for treating trauma to be added to top-down approaches like CBT. Bottom-up techniques “address resolution of the somatic symptoms of unresolved trauma”[22] – the pain held in the body.[23]

The RNR approach fails to attend to the neurobiological impact of trauma/an overdose of stressors, sensory processing difficulties and emotional dysregulation.  It is preoccupied with quantifying and managing risk rather than recognising the prevalence and impact of disrupted attachment, unresolved childhood wounds and the consequences of embodied trauma.  This explains why it can be so challenging to get probationers to buy into whole-hearted participation in CBT-based interventions. CBT ignores the reality that they may be perpetually attuned to life-threat, and are often driven unconsciously to repeat traumatic experiences.

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the opinions of her employer.

>> read part 2 | Beyond Rehabilitation: The Power of Nervous System Awareness in Probation

>>read Part 3 | Why a heart-centred approach to Probation Practice is smart


[1] D. Andrews & J. Bonta, The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, 2nd ed. (Cincinatti: Andersen, 1998).

[2] D. Andrews, et al., “The recent past and near future of risk and/or need assessment” (2006) 52 Crime and Delinquency 7-27, 27.

[3] P. Davies, “The Level of Service Inventory in the Republic of Ireland” (2007) 4(1) Irish Probation Journal 93-100.

[4] Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Lifting the Lid on Greentown – Why we should be concerned about the influence criminal networks have on children’s offending behaviour in Ireland (Dublin: Government Publications, 2016) 6.

[5] M. Campbell et al., Assessing the utility of risk assessment tools and personality measures in the prediction of violent recidivism for adult offenders (Ottawa: Public Safety Canada, 2007).

[6] I. Zinger, “Actuarial risk assessment and human rights: A commentary” (2004) 46 Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 607-621, 607.

[7] F. Taxman & M. Thanner, “Risk, Need, And Responsivity (RNR): It All Depends” (2006) 52(1) Crime and Delinquency 28-51, 45.

[8] P. Delaney & M. Weir, “Matching Offenders and Programmes: The Responsivity Principle at work in the Cornmarket Project for Offenders, Substance Misusers and their Families in Wexford” (2004) 1 Irish Probation Journal 77-85, 80.

[9] F. McNeill, “Desistance-focused probation practice”, Moving Probation Forward: Evidence, Arguments and Practice in W. Hong Chui & M. Nellis eds. (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2003).

[10] R. Burnett & F. McNeill, “The place of the officer–offender relationship in assisting offenders to desist from crime” (2005) 52(3) Probation Journal 221-242, 222-223.

[11] See

[12] See

[13] N. Miller & L. Najavits, “Creating trauma-informed correctional care: a balance of goals and environment” (2012) Euro J Psychotraumatology, 3.

[14] K. Hannah-Moffat, “Book review: Rehabilitation: Beyond the risk paradigm, Tony Ward and Shadd Maruna. London: Routledge, 2007” (2008) 10(4) Punishment and Society 475-478, 476.

[15] P. Ogden et al., “A Sensorimotor Approach to the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation” (2006) 29 Psychiatr Clin N Am 263-279, 265.

[16] See P. Gilbert “Moving beyond cognitive behaviour therapy” (2009) 22(5) The Psychologist 400-403 for an overview of the benefits and limitations of CBT.

[17] C. Whitfield, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma” (1998) 14(4) American Journal of Preventive Medicine 361-364, 362.

[18] J Mulcahy, ‘How to talk policy and influence people: a Law and Justice interview with Dr Stephen Porges’ (2020) at

[19] B. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014) 64-65.

[20] J. Looman & J. Abracen, “The Risk Need Responsivity Model of Offender Rehabilitation: Is There Really a Need For a Paradigm Shift?” (2013) 8(3/4) International Journal of Behavioural Consultation and Therapy 30-36, 35.

[21] See

[22] Ogden, above note 15, 265.

[23] See V. Yalom & M-H Yalom, “Peter Levine on Somatic Experiencing” (2010) available at

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