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Researcher works to improve risk assessment scales for Canada’s Indigenous people

January 29, 2019
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By Christine Palka

Professionals at all levels of the criminal justice system make decisions that impact offenders. Assistant Professor Maaike Helmus develops tools, called offender risk assessment scales, to ensure these decisions meet empirically guided principles. This ensures more accurate, transparent and fair decisions for offenders. She also delivers risk assessment training internationally to ensure proper use of these scales.

“We find that structured risk assessment methods are more accurate in predicting reoffending than a professional’s opinions about the offender. Every decision we make impacts the offender, and potentially impacts public safety, and we have a responsibility to make these decisions as unbiased and effective as possible,” says Helmus.

Helmus is on the development team for the Static-99R, the STABLE-2007 and the ACUTE-2007; these scales are the most frequently used tools globally to assess sexual offenders for probability to reoffend. She recently joined the development team for the first risk assessment scale for child pornography offenders called the Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool (CPORT), and for the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide-Revised, a scale used for violent offences generally.

Helmus wants to improve these risk assessment scales for Canada’s Indigenous people. In June 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada asked researchers to determine if risk assessment scales accurately apply to Indigenous offenders. Most risk assessment scales predict reoffending worse for Indigenous offenders than non-Indigenous offenders.

“We have no real idea why this happens. It’s likely a combination of discrimination and prejudice in the system, and unique cultural differences that our scales are not doing a good job of assessing. That’s why it’s complicated. The risk assessment scales are not working as well as we want, but to throw them out, that could do more harm” says Helmus. ­­­­

Risk assessment scales may be protective by preventing further discriminatory assessments with Indigenous offenders. Helmus finds that when professionals use their own judgement without scales they over estimate risk for Indigenous offenders.

“The goal is higher accuracy. Structured risk assessments increase accuracy and consistency. You don’t want someone’s risk results to be based on which particular psychologist did their assessment. You want methods of assessment to be applied consistently no matter who’s doing the evaluation. Moving forward, we need to be humbler and more cautious, while understanding the current limitations of the research, when assessing Indigenous offenders,” says Helmus.

Dr. Maaike Helmus joined SFU’s School of Criminology in September 2018. She holds a PhD in Forensic Psychology from Carleton University in Ottawa. Her dissertation titled, Developing and Validating a Risk Assessment Scale to Predict Inmate Placements in Administrative Segregation in the Correctional Service of Canada, won the Governor General’s Gold Medal for graduate work in 2015. Her research focuses include Offender risk assessment; sex offenders; statistics; prediction; recidivism; Indigenous offenders; meta-analysis.

Dr. Maaike Helmus primarily teaches research methods and statistics courses, seminars on offender risk assessment, and psychological perspectives on criminal behaviour. When Dr. Helmus is not in the office, she’s working from home with her two cats, Crème Brule and Cupcake snuggled at her feet.