Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

StFX honours student explores criminal risk assessments for young offenders

October 19th, 2016
Honours psychology student Briony Merritt talks about her project and undergraduate research opportunities at StFX

StFX student Briony Merritt is spending much of her final undergraduate year of study thinking about a topic many people would rather avoid: criminal behaviour. 

That’s because Briony, a fourth-year honours psychology student, is completing her honours research by examining risk assessment tools for young offenders at the IWK Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Briony is also enrolled in StFX’s two-year Forensic Psychology concentration.

During a risk assessment, a clinical psychologist uses a set of standardized tools to generate an assessment of a criminal offender’s likelihood to reoffend. They can also override the result if they feel the tools have not reflected an accurate risk assessment for any given offender.  Briony’s research will examine how often these overrides happen with youth offenders at the IWK, and whether the tools and overrides have been successful in predicting future criminal behavior. 

The opportunity to work on a project with real-world impacts has enhanced Briony’s experience as a StFX student. 

“It’s fantastic,” she says. “Between this research and my work in the Forensic Psychology concentration, I’m getting both experiential and traditional academic learning. Everything I learn in class I can see in a full and better defined light when I’m working out in the field.”  

Briony’s research is taking place through a partnership between Dr. Margo Watt, Professor of Psychology at StFX University, and professionals at Dalhousie University, the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of New Brunswick and the IWK Hospital’s Youth Forensic Services division. 

Working on a type of research opportunity that’s typically reserved for graduate students has been an incredible experience for Briony, who also enjoys a close working relationship with her faculty advisor, Dr. Watt. 

“It’s been a great partnership,” says Briony. “Dr. Watt has been invaluable in getting this project off the ground and opening the door for me to work with these researchers, which is a very unique opportunity for an undergraduate student.”

The potential to impact how risk assessments are conducted for young offenders has been exciting, too.

“If the research shows that overrides are used with high frequency, as previous studies in other provinces have shown, then we might need to reassess that,” says Briony. “And if it shows the assessments have had a fairly high success rate of predicting future behavior, we may be able to say they’re doing a good job at the IWK monitoring these offenders as they come in.”

“The answers to some of this research will guide decision making around how these assessments are conducted in the future,” adds Dr. Watt. 

Briony’s research was made possible in part by the Irving Research Mentorship Award, which is valued at $6,000 and gifted through the Frank McKenna Centre for Leadership. Nine StFX students received the prestigious award in 2016. 

“This type of research costs money,” says Dr. Watt. “For Briony to even get onsite at the IWK as a student researcher is quite onerous and incurs some costs. It’s quite an undertaking, and the Irving Mentorship Award certainly was a significantly helpful factor.”

And although Briony still has months of research ahead of her, this project is already helping shape her direction for the future. 

“This work has really opened my eyes to research that I’d be interested in pursuing, whether in graduate school or further afield.”

Learn more about student research opportunities at StFX.

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