I have worked in criminal justice for nearly 25 years; so am very aware that in the 1990s the prison population grew fast. The population increased by over 20,000 in around 5 years from 1993-1998. That significant rise was largely the result of longer sentences and an increased use of custody. It is notable that despite those huge increases, in the late 1990s, there were just 150 recalled prisoners. In June 2017 there were 6,390.
The changes in the recall population were driven primarily by legislative change, although Serious Further Offences (particularly the Sonnex case) have also had an impact.
As CEO of the Parole Board I know that recall is an important tool in preventing further serious offences, and further victims. There are sometimes situations where recall may be absolutely essential to protect the public from serious harm. However, I am also clear that the sheer number of recalls, 21,721 over the last twelve months, makes this an area worthy of focus.
The Parole Board now considers thousands of recall cases each year. Last year we held over 2,000 oral hearings in recall cases; over double the number held 5 years ago. What do we learn from those figures?
IPPs are the fastest growing area of recalls
As previously noted the Parole Board is now releasing significantly more IPPs than it did 10 years ago. Because there are more IPPs being managed in the community it is inevitable that more are at risk of recall. However the trend line is a cause for concern. In June 2017 there were 760 IPPs who were back in prison following recall; up tenfold over the last five years. Last year the Parole Board ordered the release of 905 IPPs (including the re-release of 249 recalled IPPs). In the same period 481 IPPs were recalled. So more than 50% of the number released were recalled (prisoners can of course be recalled after a few days – or some years after release).
I believe there is a strong case for looking again at the current lifelong licence – to ensure that IPPs who are judged safe to release have a greater chance of moving on with their lives.
Around 60% of those reviewed by the Board at oral hearing were rereleased
I think this demonstrates that by the time a case gets to a hearing most recalled prisoners are not assessed as representing a significant risk to the public. I do not think this necessarily means that the initial recall decision was wrong; but it does demonstrate that things may not always be as they first appear.
We know that many people leaving prison lead chaotic lives. Many struggle to cope when they leave prison; and we need to be careful that their struggles to cope are not misinterpreted.
I do think that all efforts should be made to prevent unnecessary recalls. I therefore strongly endorse the efforts being made within HMPPS to reduce recalls; through looking at guidance and training. That work is already starting to bear fruit and the recall population is actually starting to fall (down by 3%) according to the most recent statistics.
Speaking to probation staff, I understand that one of the biggest problems they face is uncertainty. Is a breach of a licence condition a worrying sign of increased risk? Or are there good explanations/mitigation? A recall decision is ultimately a judgement call.
Often things will only be clear after the prisoner is recalled. The Scottish Parole Board makes the final decision on licence recall and, whilst we need to think carefully about workload, I do wonder if a similar early review would work in our jurisdiction.
I also wonder if the system should adopt a tougher approach where somebody is charged with further offences. The criminal courts are well placed to bail or remand those charged with criminal offences; we should be careful that those on licence are not subject to disproportionate punishment through recall, unless there is clear evidence of significant risk.
What next for the Parole Board?
Since joining the Parole Board my main priority has been to bring the backlog down to pre Osborn levels. My favourite chart (below) shows we are nearly there.
Whilst I am extremely pleased at the progress made; I can see further challenges on the horizon.
As highlighted at the Justice Select Committee, we still need to do much more to reduce our deferral rate. Too often all of the parties get to the hearing and the hearing does not complete. Unnecessary delays lead to increased uncertainty for victims, prisoners, and their families. The Board has set up a new project to look at how we achieve better results. I want us to work with prisons, probation and legal representatives to improve the effectiveness of our system.
We also need to tackle diversity in the Parole Board itself. Whilst the Parole Board has an excellent gender balance; I am really keen to improve the number of black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups on the board. I am absolutely certain that greater diversity in our membership would increase confidence in the parole system and help us make even better decisions. Over the next 4-6 months I am looking to talk to as many people as I can in order that we have a significant increase in applications when we next recruit.