More transparent decisions on parole
The Parole Board has made real progress in recent years as we have sought to bring down the huge problem with backlogs and delays.
I was hoping this blog for Russell Webster would be the opportunity to talk about:
- how by late 2017 the Parole Board had reduced its number of outstanding cases by over 60%, to the lowest level seen since the Osborn judgment was handed down in 2013. The backlog has essentially been eliminated, which means that most parole cases are being given a hearing date as soon as they are ready.
- the progress we continue to make in ensuring that we progress IPPs whilst protecting the public.
- how we have overhauled our internal systems so that we are now virtually 100% digital.
- our plans to build on that good progress by making further improvements in the efficiency of the parole system, including a renewed focus on diversity.
But that is not my focus…
The parole board’s independence
Following the Parole Board decision in a particularly high profile case, there has been unprecedented parliamentary, media and public interest in our work.
I understand the anger and frustration of the victims (some of whom have contacted me directly) who feel they have been badly let down by the criminal justice system. Frustratingly, I cannot comment on the decision of the parole panel in that case, nor can I explain our decisions to those victims and the public, because the current Parole Board rules prevent the publication of any detailed information about our decisions.
I would, however, like to talk about two things:
- the vital importance of the Parole Board making its independent decisions with care – but with confidence, and without fear of interference or (in my view) misplaced public and media criticism;
- how we could, subject to the outcome of the Ministry of Justice review now underway, use greater transparency to minimise unwarranted criticism in the future.
The decisions of the Parole Board are essentially judicial. The domestic and international courts have rightly determined that whilst it is a matter for Parliament to set the laws of this country, within those laws it is for the courts to determine guilt or innocence, sentence, and, in the most serious cases, release.
It is for the judge to sentence, taking account of the seriousness of the offences for which an offender has been convicted.
It is for the independent Parole Board to make a decision on release for the most serious offences after the prisoner has served the period set by the judge for punishment. These are basic tenets of our justice system, important to a democratic society and should be defended.
Focus on risk to the public
Parliament has made clear that the job of the Parole Board when considering release is to focus on one thing alone – risk to the public. That is our number one priority. We cannot, and should not, consider the popularity or indeed, unpopularity of our decisions. We need to make that decision based on evidence alone; not emotion – even if we have intense sympathy with the victims whose lives have been changed, in many cases forever, by a serious offence. Our task is to determine whether a prisoner continues to represent a significant risk to the public. This is a high bar; every person who appears before the Board has committed a serious sexual or violent offence – or has been assessed as dangerous.
Our decisions are rightly made with care, because the consequences of a misjudgement are significant. It strikes at the very heart of confidence in the justice system, and the belief that people can be rehabilitated, if those who commit the most serious offences commit further serious offences after release.
My message to the Parole Board over recent weeks has not changed. Despite the public clamour, we are extremely effective at determining future risk to the public, and whilst there is always room for improvement, we should be confident in our decision making.
Whilst it is important that as a court-like body our decisions are respected, and indeed upheld; the problem we have is that very few people know anything about how parole works. Going forward, that must change – and I welcome the Ministry of Justice commencing a review on transparency of Parole Board decision making.
I am sure that if the public and media knew a little more about our system they would at least understand how and why we make our decisions, even if they disagreed with them.
- We know that the number of serious further offences committed in England and Wales compares favourably with the very best international parole systems at less than 1%. We know that people are capable of, and do, change. People cannot change their past, but they can change their future.
- Parole should never be confused with punishment. Despite public concern, the facts show that people can commit the most serious offences and be safely released back into communities to live worthwhile lives.
Confident in decision making
But we should not sugar coat things.
- apart from the small number of people given a whole life tariff, people who commit the most serious offences, are entitled, as a matter of law, to be considered for parole as soon as they have served the period for punishment. If they are no longer assessed as a significant risk, they must be released – even if they are notorious.
- the views of the victim, whilst of enormous value in setting licence conditions and understanding the on-going impact of a serious offence, are likely to have a very limited impact on the decision as to whether a prisoner continues to represent a risk to the public.
- Whilst every case is reviewed on its individual merits; parole is an important safety valve for the penal system. Every year the Parole Board releases around 2-3,000 prisoners who we consider no longer represent a risk to the public. Parliament is fully entitled to change how we make our decisions. But let us be clear – releasing fewer people would have a significant impact on the size of the prison population and public finances.
Whilst explanation of the system is commendable, we must go further. I would welcome if the Ministry of Justice’s review provided greater freedom to explain more about our decisions in individual cases.
- Why should we not be able to tell a victim (and the public) how a prisoner has reformed for the better whilst in prison?
- Why can’t we reassure victims by explaining the detailed licence conditions we put in place to protect victims and the public?
- Why are victims sometimes left to hear the result of a hearing through the media?
During my career, working as a policy maker, in the criminal courts and as CEO of the Parole Board, I have spoken to hundreds of victims of crime. What is striking, is that the majority of victims are not out for retribution. They want reassurance on three things:
- that the offender has been properly punished.
- that the perpetrator will not reoffend.
- that they will receive accurate and timely information about their case, when they ask for it.
If the law is changed, I am sure we will be able to provide some reassurance of our decision making by explaining the key reasons for our decisions to victims and indeed the wider public. I think we should be confident in the work of the Parole Board, but we cannot expect victims, the media and the public to make an accurate assessment of our work if they know nothing about it.