Early during her post-secondary education, Maaike Helmus found her focus by trying to enhance public safety with her research.
“I had to work part time and sometimes full time during my studies,” she says, “but every hour I worked was on the exact kind of research in risk assessment that I wanted to do.”
Her thesis, based on sex offender risk assessment developed into an innovative and cost-effective tool that identified which members of the prisoner population should and should not be placed in solitary confinement. The segregation placement process has been known to result in dangerous, sometimes fatal, outcomes.
Correction facilities in Canada often house a large inmate population while strapped for resources.
“The project for my dissertation allowed me to take something I know really well, statistics, and apply it to more uncharted territory since there is little research done in correctional segregation.”
Although the Canadian correctional system is still investigating how the tool could change policy, Helmus is encouraged by her continued work in the field. Recently, she was the only non-American to attend a working group in Washington, D.C., with the National Institute of Justice that was commissioned by the Obama administration. Corrections experts from across the U.S. and representatives from most state prisons received the results of her dissertation to help develop strategy in an overhaul of their corrections system.
“That was really rewarding,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to present my work and potentially have some impact in the correctional system in the U.S.”
Already the recipient of the University Medal for Outstanding Graduate Work at the Doctoral Level in spring 2015 when she graduated, Helmus will be awarded the Governor-General’s Gold Medal at fall Convocation. What’s most rewarding to the PhD recipient, however, is having spent 12 years at the same university as part of Canada’s largest forensic psychology department.
“As of 2011, Carleton’s forensic psychology faculty had more professors and students than any other Canadian university,” said Helmus. “It was so full of wonderful people that I thought I’d stick around.”
During her BA in Criminology’s second year, Prof. Craig Bennell put her in touch with Karl Hanson, a world-renown forensic psychologist with whom she still works, 10 years later. Helmus started publishing in just her second undergraduate year, a rare feat, and now has close to 30 published papers to her name.
Now a part-time Research Analyst for Public Safety Canada, Helmus is still intent in identifying areas of the corrections system that need attention.
“I’m very hopeful about my work,” she said. “It’s really all about meaningful research that will improve practice.”