New Rules – new challenges
This is a guest blog by Martin Jones, Chief Exec of the Parole Board.
On 22 July new Parole Board Rules came into effect.
These rules introducd a number of important changes that will seek to improve the parole system. Perhaps most importantly, these rules introduced the new reconsideration mechanism.
Having now spent nearly four years at the Parole Board, I have seen significant change and challenges. Some may be surprised to hear that I welcome further change to the system, but I do. I believe these changes are important for maintaining confidence in the parole system.
The Parole Board make over 25,000 decisions each year. We seek to make all those decisions carefully, having considered hundreds of pages of evidence, and in many cases detailed oral evidence. According to all the data I have seen, and the hundreds of decisions I have read, I believe our decisions are sound. However, given the scale, complexity and nature of the cases we cannot be complacent.
Under the new system a party to the case — either the prisoner or the Secretary of State — may make an application for the case to be reconsidered by the Parole Board. The bar for the application to be successful is a high one and is similar to the grounds for a judicial review. The Board’s decision, even if unpopular or controversial, must be found to be irrational, or procedurally unfair for it to be looked at again. The new procedure will apply to “classic parole cases” (indeterminate cases, and other cases where initial release is at the discretion of the Parole Board), but it will not apply to determinate recall cases.
Under the new rules there will be a tight 21-day time limit for applications. I am pleased there is this strict deadline, because prisoners, their families and victims need certainty of the outcome at the earliest opportunity. Once a reconsideration application is received, a judge will review it and respond swiftly. Where they find that the initial decision is irrational or procedurally unfair, the case will be considered afresh. I suspect that the number of cases that may need to be re-opened will be small.
I know there are some commentators who believe that the new mechanism is unnecessary, and perhaps an over-reaction to recent difficult cases. My assessment is that maintaining confidence that we have a fair and effective parole system is so important that we should embrace change. We know that those released on licence by the Parole Board rarely commit serious offences after release. It makes little sense for people who have committed very serious offences and are considered a risk to the public to be automatically released without any consideration by an expert independent body focused on assessment of risk.
We also know that change can be positive. On 22 May 2018, the Parole Board were able to start publishing decision summaries to explain our reasons in individual cases — as previously called for by the Board. Despite initial fears, we have now provided 1,588 summaries, primarily to victims. Many of our summaries have also been published, or drawn from, in media coverage of high-profile decisions. It must be better that the media and victims have the facts, rather than speculation. Has the prisoner addressed underlying drug and alcohol problems? Why do we believe that a prisoner has changed?
I am a strong believer in the power of open justice. We cannot expect anyone to start to understand our decisions if we aren’t able to share our reasons.
On 18 July the Board published its Annual Report and Accounts. The report highlights the scale and complexity of the work of the Board.
Clearing the backlog
In 2018-19, the Board held 7,903 oral hearings. We directed the release of over 2,900 prisoners including 893 IPP prisoners (including IPP recalls). Compensation to prisoners has dipped by nearly 80% as we have cleared the backlog. A new framework called “RADAR” is also being implemented to ensure that we take a consistent approach to decision making. A project focussing on case ownership has already helped reduce the number of wasted hearings deferred on the day from over 20% to just 6%.
While I am proud of our achievements, many challenges remain. The Board is starting to see the number of Extended Determinate Sentence cases increase year on year. This is set to increase further and according to my estimations the Parole Board will need to hold over 10,000 hearings a year to keep up with demand. The new rules will assist us in managing this increased caseload by ensuring that key information is provided much earlier in the process. We will also have increased powers to manage non-disclosure applications, ensure third-party direction compliance and provide much clearer timeframes for the process.
To keep up with demand, we need enough members to keep up with the workload. I am privileged to have around 220 members to make the judicial decisions asked of them (assisted by my superb staff). Those public servants are extremely hard-working and committed to making fair and effective decisions. Following our recent campaign to strengthen the diversity amongst our members, I am very much looking forward to more new members joining us in the Autumn, to ensure we have the members we need to make the decisions required of us in the future. We are already planning our 2020 campaign to build on this success.