2023 Research Impact Canada Engaged Scholarship Award Winner (Master’s category): Ashley Kyne

Ashley Kyne was awarded the 2023 Research Impact Canada Engaged Scholarship Award for her project, “Canada’s National Disgrace”: Identifying Risk and Protective Factors for Indigenous Offenders.

About project

Did you know Indigenous Peoples represent 4.5% of the Canadian adult population, but 26.3% of new admissions to federal prison? Compared to non-Indigenous offenders, Indigenous offenders are over-represented among those in administrative segregation, released later in their sentence, and among parole revocations. There is a similar overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in the United States, Australia, and Zealand. While the culture and experiences of Indigenous groups vary, they face similar challenges in learning how to maximize the fairness and effectiveness of a European-imposed justice system.

Almost all decisions in the criminal justice system are influenced by a formal or informal assessment of an individual’s risk of reoffending. These roles include but are not limited to security classification, sentencing, and treatment. Risk assessments can be understood as a prognostic tool. Although practitioners make dichotomous decisions, risk exists along a continuum, where dangerous and not dangerous are components of reoffending. Instead, risk is determined by various factors that describe an individual’s risk as more or less dangerous.

Identifying strategies for reducing Indigenous overrepresentation is prioritized in the application of risk assessments. Existing risk assessment tools and core risk factors tend to predict recidivism better for non-Indigenous offenders but worse for Indigenous offenders. Furthermore, Indigenous offenders are more likely to be classified as high-risk. This crucial gap in risk assessment research/practice takes on particular importance given the Supreme Court of Canada ruling regarding the applicability of risk assessment tools with Indigenous offenders (Ewert v. Canada, 2018). In this case, Jeffrey Ewert—a Métis federal prisoner—contended that the risk assessment scales used by Correctional Services Canada were not validated with Indigenous populations, rendering them harmful due to the potential for discrimination. The case resulted in the Court mandating that risk tools must be appropriately validated on Indigenous offenders.

Given that risk assessment scales are not working as well for Indigenous offenders, we need to understand why this is the case, and how we can improve risk assessment practices. An endeavour like this involves two core components: content and process. No risk assessment tool currently in use has been developed in a culturally-informed way or has considered the possibility of culturally-specific risk factors for Indigenous offenders.

Culturally specific risk factors can be explained in terms of the historical and ongoing marginalization that Indigenous Peoples experience, including colonization, intergenerational trauma, and residential schools. These risk factors have been cited for impacting Indigenous Peoples’ social and economic status, making it highly possible that they would also be related to criminal behaviour.

Although this type of risk assessment research is new, it is clear that a more blended approach of culturally-informed data collection is needed to explore the potential culturally-specific risk factors of Indigenous offenders. To address this crucial gap in risk assessment research, I developed a culturally-informed questionnaire focusing on issues unique/disproportionate to Indigenous experiences in North America. This study’s methodology and recruitment strategy involve considerable attention to decolonizing methodologies and consultations with Indigenous stakeholders with ample experience working with Indigenous Peoples. Historically, researchers employed a “helicopter approach,” where they would arrive in Indigenous communities, collect data, and never return. Likewise, social science researchers have reduced Indigenous Peoples to numbers, separated from their stories.

Despite my quantitative objectives, I will change the narrative by weaving in Indigenous peoples’ stories and experiences as essential components of the research—linking numbers to people and stories. Data collection practices will demonstrate respect, reconciliation, and potential for transformation in our relationships with Indigenous peoples. This is a key component of my research as Indigenous Peoples finally have a say in creating, interpreting, and disseminating information about them in risk assessment research.

Acknowledging the importance of culture in the justice system is the first step to rectifying the issue of inequitable justice for Indigenous offenders, and risk assessments might be our best solution.

About award recipient

Ashley Kyne is an iTaukei master’s student at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology. In 2022, Ashley received her Bachelor of Arts in Criminology (Hons) and Indigenous Studies. Ashley’s honours thesis combined two of her passions—Indigenous justice and offender risk assessments—to examine culturally-informed risk factors for Indigenous offenders. As a SSHRC Joseph-Arman Bombardier Masters Scholar, Lieutenant Governor Medalist, and CERi Graduate Fellow, and now, a RIC Engaged Scholarship award recipient, Ashley will continue her research on risk/protective factors and assessment practices for Indigenous offenders.