Explaining the benefits of parole

Parole Board Chief Exec Martin Jones describes just how our parole system works and highlights the key benefits.

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Protecting the public

This is a guest blog by Martin Jones, Chief Exec of the Parole Board.

Public confidence

One of the key challenges a public institution faces is ensuring it maintains public confidence.

To maintain the confidence of a body like the Parole Board, it is crucial that the public understand the central role that the Parole Board plays in the protection of the public, which is always our over-riding priority.

Reading the media and social media, I sometimes think there is a risk of fundamental misunderstanding of the role that the Parole Board plays in the criminal justice system.

Whilst most people focus on those we release; there is little understanding of the flip-side of our decisions. I am certain that our decisions prevent dangerous prisoners being released and we do not shirk from keeping people in custody, if necessary, for the rest of their lives if we consider they remain a risk to the public. I am regularly made aware of people who have been reviewed by the Board on multiple occasions, sometimes being held in custody for decades beyond the minimum period set for punishment. Without a court-like body reviewing the continuing detention of those individuals, after the period for punishment has expired, the detention of those individuals would not be lawful under the European Convention on Human Rights or domestic law.

To me these figures suggest that the Parole Board undertake the serious decisions we take with some caution.

I do however believe in reform and the possibility of redemption. The bravery of a number of former prisoners tackling the London Bridge attacker in November exemplifies this. People can commit serious offences and reform over time. What is my evidence for this? Well our success rate demonstrates that only a tiny proportion of people – consistently at, or less than 1% – are charged with a serious further offence after a Parole Board release, and fewer than that are convicted. That rate compares favourably with international parole systems in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.

Through sentencing in individual cases, and the legal framework, it is a matter for judges and Parliament to decide how long people must serve in prison before release is possible. But the overwhelming majority of people are likely to be released at some point. There are currently just 66 people (0.08% of all of those in prison) whose whole life sentence means release will never be considered. Every other person in prison has a chance of release at some point; and the majority will be released automatically. But however long an offender spends in custody, I am certain that our criminal justice system would be far weaker without a detailed and independent risk assessment of the most serious offenders by the Parole Board before their release.

A victim’s perspective

 Whilst our primary role is to look at the risk posed by prisoners; I am glad that our system has become more focused on, and sensitive to, the needs of victims. Victims can now make statements at a parole hearing, request a summary of a decision (around 2,500 have now been issued) and ask the Justice Secretary to seek a reconsideration of a parole decision.

The victims I have met display astonishing bravery and fortitude. I am acutely aware of the impact the parole process can have on them. The system needs to understand that reality.

Even though a criminal offence may have taken place many years previously, I find that victim impact statements are visceral.  They read as if the offence was committed yesterday. The statements I have read illustrate the continued trauma of serious offending on lives. To make it even more difficult, few victims properly understand the sentences imposed, and are therefore ill-prepared for the Board to contemplate release. Few victims understand that the parole process is about the assessment of future risk, not punishment. The system needs to do better.  

That is why I am committed to working with other agencies to ensure that the process supports and prepares victims. I am concerned that some vulnerable people are not aware of, and therefore unable to properly access, their rights, because they have not signed up to the Victim Contact Scheme in the past. I strongly support the move to a position where victims can “opt-out” of the victim contact scheme, rather than being asked to “opt-in” shortly after the trauma of a criminal trial. More also needs to be done to ensure that victims can access professional victim support when they are engaged in the parole process. I suspect that for many victims the parole process is more difficult than the trial itself.

Root and Branch Review of Parole

Recent cases underline the seriousness and gravity of the challenges facing the criminal justice system in managing complex and potentially dangerous people. We cannot be complacent. I support the case for a “root and branch” review of the parole system and do not think we should fear further scrutiny. Whilst we have no crystal ball, I think the Parole Board  has proven itself to be effective at keeping the public safe. But there is surely more that can be done to ensure we have a safe, fair and effective system; sensitive to the needs of victims; whilst commanding the confidence of the public?

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One Response

  1. As at 31 March 2016 the total prison population in England and Wales was just over 85,400. In Scotland the prison population was just under 7,700 and in Northern Ireland 1800. In effect with a British prison population of almost 96000 this is the highest custodial population in Europe. (Prison Stats March 2016). It doesn’t have to be thus as in Germany between 2004 and 2015 the prison population has actually dropped by 22% and in the Netherlands between 2004 and 2014 it has dropped by 42% with the latter now ‘renting out empty spaces to Belgium.’ (UN Human Rights 2015). It is costly too as the current daily rate for a day in prison is 200 euros in Sweden, 110 euros in the UK and by contrast, in the Ukraine, where I have been working recently, it is 2.68 euro per day.
    Whilst the UK has embarked on a custodial policy since the early 1990s ‘Prison Works’ (Michael Howard 1993, Theresa May 2010)that has more than doubled the prison population other factors such as parole violations and recall have also made their contribution to this (Maruna 2004). Stricter supervision, increased conditions, non discretional enforcement, hardening agency policy have all contributed to what is now the fastest growing part of the prison population (Spurr 2016). Parole which exists to provide custodial incentives during sentence and supervised re-integration at the end of sentence has been dominated by an ‘overabundance of caution’ amidst an ever populist and vigilant media and the potential visitation of a SFO inquiry. The complexity of parole conditions together with the primacy of risk and dangerousness within a managerialist target based culture have all contributed to this increase of recalls and the concomitant expansion of the prison estate.
    Adjustments are being made to the recall assessments and officers must now consult with a manager before having recourse to recall (Spurr July 2016). But perhaps we need something more akin to Petersilia’s call for the ‘reinvention of parole’ taking a more strategic approach where the emphasis should be upon the minimum intervention necessary to secure the safe release of the individual into the Community (Drakeford, Haines, Cotton & Octigan 2001). Conditions should only be included in licences if they are truly necessary and directly contribute to the reduction and minimisation of risk. The emphasis should be upon getting the offender ‘over the line’ to the end of the licence rather than premature or unnecessary recall and, to reassure the public, those cases considered to be high or very high risk of harm should have slick and speedy arrangements to ensure that these cases are despatched quickly back into custody with the least or minimal fuss. Without a broad overarching policy to assist us in determining who should and who should not be in our custodial establishments I can only imagine that we will limber on to the 100 thousand prison population without hardly noticing the achievement of same; and where do we go from there – 200 thousand?
    Other countries have determined that their prison populations can be safely reduced why can’t ours?

    Mike Octigan

    July 2016.

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