University of Saskatchewan researcher Maaike Helmus has been awarded a prestigious Banting Post-doctoral Fellowship for studying risk assessment tools that could help courts determine whether inmates, particularly Indigenous individuals, are likely to re-offend.
With $140,000 awarded over two years, the goal of the Banting Fellowship program is to attract and retain top post-doctoral researchers both nationally and internationally.
“The Banting Fellowship will allow me to address an existing gap in the research that needs to be addressed, as the Supreme Court of Canada pointed out,” said Helmus. “The Banting is a rare opportunity to invest in addressing long-term research goals and explore tough, controversial questions.”
Though Helmus will cut short her Fellowship to take up an assistant professor position at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia this fall, her research will continue in partnership with her supervisor Mark Olver, U of S psychology professor and a Canadian leader in criminology research.
Their goal is to provide recommendations to improve risk assessment practices with Indigenous peoples, who are overrepresented in the Canadian criminal justice system. Although Indigenous people make up five per cent of the Canadian population, they constitute 27 per cent of the federal prison population.
“Given the special vulnerability of Indigenous offenders, it is critical that any risk assessment tools used to inform decisions are validated to see how effective they are with Indigenous offenders, and whether they should be applied at all,” said Helmus.
Helmus and Olver will work with several U of S graduate and undergraduate students to score the potential risk of inmates re-offending based on the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide-Revised (VRAG-R) scale, a checklist that uses personal information and criminal history to determine risks for re-offending.
The researchers will be the first in Canada to test the effectiveness of the scale with Indigenous offenders.
Helmus’s fellowship was funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. A total of 70 Banting Post-doctoral Fellowships were awarded for 2017-18 from 593 applications.
Federica Giannelli is a graduate student intern in the University of Saskatchewan research profile and impact unit.