The Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, has announced a reform package for the parole system. A “Root and Branch” review focussed on the following areas:
- An evaluation of the parole reforms to date – looking at overall performance, the response to the pandemic, the effectiveness of the reconsideration mechanism and any rule changes that would further improve the process.
- The constitution and status of the Parole Board – considering whether the Board should remain a non-departmental public body or whether it should be visibly independent from the Ministry of Justice. Looking at alternatives, such as a public protection tribunal, and whether any additional measures are needed to strengthen the Board’s powers.
- Improving public understanding and confidence – looking at further steps that could be taken to explain and publicise decisions and how the assessments work, improving the message that the parole system protects the public.
- Openness and transparency – developing a way for victims to observe hearings in a safe way, considering the case for public hearings and looking at ways to build on work already done to improve openness and transparency.
The Parole Board is an independent body that carries out risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether or not they can be released from custody. Their decisions solely focus on whether a prisoner would represent a significant risk to the public if released.
Not all prisoners are subject to oversight and release by the Parole Board; those prisoners under consideration are those serving:
- life sentences and sentences of imprisonment for public protection;
- extended determinate sentences;
- sentences for offenders of particular concern (terrorists and serious child sex offenders).
The Parole Board also consider the re-release of prisoners who are recalled to prison for breach of licence conditions.
Parole Board hearings can be held to assess an offender’s risk and, therefore, whether they are suitable to be released into the community. The Panel can ask questions of those present, particularly the prisoner and anyone who prepared a report for the hearing, to reach a conclusion.
A representative of the Secretary of State is represented at hearings via the probation officers who provide the report and by a highly experienced probation officer who reviews high profile and complex cases. In some legally complex cases, the Ministry of Justice can instruct Counsel to make representations on behalf of the Secretary of State.
The package of reforms is said to put the emphasis “firmly back on public protection” and include:
- The Parole Board will have to take a more “precautionary approach”, one that will be enshrined in law. The wording of the legislation will leave “no room for interpretation” and will make clear that the only priority is whether the prisoner is safe to release.
- The release of the most dangerous offenders will be subject to greater ministerial scrutiny and will include the power to block the release of prisoners where it is in the interest of public safety. This will be done by creating a top tier of offenders, consisting of those who commit the most serious crimes, who will be subject to this oversight.
- The proportion of Parole Board members from policing backgrounds will be increased. Changes to the law will be made to ensure this takes place and that these members sit on hearings for the most dangerous offenders. This is because such members would have first-hand experience dealing with this type of offender and the risk they pose, putting a greater focus on public protection during the hearings.
- Representatives of the Secretary of State do not currently offer a view on the release or open conditions but can urge caution. Under the reforms, a representative or instructed Counsel will be present in all top tier cases where HMPSS opposes the release. The precautionary approach will be applied, emphasising that public protection must be central in the risk assessment.
- A model is to be developed in which one Secretary of State’s view will be presented to the Panel. The view would reflect the assessment made by probation officers and psychologists.
Victims are also to be the subject of more attention and are to be given more of a voice and put at the front and centre of the process. Reforms in this respect include:
- The Parole Board to consider submissions from victims when making release decisions.
- Victims to be allowed to attend hearings in person and to be allowed to ask questions. At the moment, victims are only allowed to provide a statement setting out how the crime impacted their life that can be read by the Board.
- The Parole Board to trial the provision of more detailed decision letters to victims, explaining their thinking and providing more transparency.
- The media and prisoners to have the opportunity to apply for a public hearing and for the Board to consider such applications on an interest of justice basis.
In cases involving re-release after a recall on licence, a similar public protection test is applied. Such decisions take up a lot of the Parole Board’s time, so the reforms considered how the process worked and where changes could be made. The Report identified and looked at some of the key issues but concluded that further work was required to understand the best way to reform the processes. The recommendation was for the Parole System Oversight Group to examine the causes of delays and duplication to generate potential solutions. The Parole Board will also be required to apply the extended statutory release tests when making recall release decisions.
The Parole Board also considers whether life and IPP prisoners are suitable for a move to open conditions. The government is of the view that any recommendations for a move to open conditions for particular prisoners should be subject to greater ministerial scrutiny. The prisoners are those convicted of; murder, other homicide, rape, serious sexual offences and cruelty against a child.
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Image credit: “Prison cell with bed” by Tim Pearce, Los Gatos is marked with CC BY 2.0.