Striving to improve
2017-18 represents the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the Parole Board. Those fifty years has seen fundamental changes and many improvements in the way our system works, it has also brought enormous new challenges.
Deciding whether it is necessary to keep someone in prison to protect the public is a vital, often difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decision. We need our independent members to show good judgement, to assess, based on all the evidence, whether somebody serving a prison sentence can be safely managed in the community.
The Board has published a strategy: Parole Board Strategy 2016-2020 setting out our plans for ensuring the Board meets our important duties.
Our number one priority at present has been to tackle the unacceptable delays to hearings. Delays have a corrosive impact and can cause a loss of hope.
The rise of oral hearings
Whilst fifty years ago, the Parole Board rarely, if ever, saw the person whose liberty they were deciding, in 2016-17 the Parole Board held a historic high of 7,377 hearings. This high, is partly a consequence of increased numbers of people being eligible for a parole review (including the continuing legacy of the discontinued IPP sentence) but most recently the result of the Supreme Court judgment in the case of Osborn, which obliged the Board to hold more hearings to ensure fairness. We now hold nearly five times the number of hearings we held a decade ago. Our hard work has now brought down the backlog by 40% over the last two years, bringing down delays; but there remains more to do.
The Board’s strategy also commits us to making progress on IPPs. Whilst our role is to look at risk to the public, and I believe there are a small number IPPs who remain a genuine danger to the public; I share the concern of many commentators about the fact that there are still 3,528 IPPs in prison. I fear that for some imprisonment itself and their despair; is not helping. Whilst historically there was justifiable concern about the failure of IPPs to make progress, in recent years the numbers of IPPs progressed has risen significantly as a result of progress in custody and greater confidence. In 2016-17 the Board ordered the release of over 900 IPP prisoners (including the re-release of recalled IPPs); this is 20% more than in the preceding year and I expect us to make further significant progress this year. Despite the progress made, I can understand why IPPs are perceived as creating potential injustice, and believe there is a compelling case to changing the licence arrangements, which have the potential to compound the difficulties seen over the last twelve years.
Recalls a growing challenge
Whilst the Board strives to keep up with growing demand, it is striking to note the range of cases now coming to the Board. When created our primary purpose was to provide to ministers on the release of those serving a life sentence following the abolition of the death penalty. Today we spend significant time dealing with recall prisoners; whose numbers have increased astonishingly over the last twenty years. On average, we receive around one thousand recall cases a month and many of those cases are going to an oral hearing. Whilst it is quite right that prisoners have the right to challenge the lawfulness of their recall, I believe that more could be done to encourage probation officers to exercise their professional judgement to keep people in the community, and fully support efforts being made by Sonia Crozier as head of the National Probation Service to find alternatives to recall and increase confidence.
We are also working with our members to ensure we have a robust, evidence based approach to risk. The recent decision to stop SOTP programmes is salutary. Parole decisions cannot be takes through tick box approaches. Treatment and programmes are not panaceas. Risk can reduce through age; maturity; insight into offending; and a reduction in opportunities to offend. Whatever has happened in the past; the Board is encouraging its members to look at all of the evidence available and to be open and reflective about our decision making. Risk can never be entirely eliminated, but good decisions will identify the risks and how they might be managed in the community. But this needs imagination from all involved. Looking to the future; I am certain that the Parole Board has the opportunity to utilise technology such as alcohol monitoring to better manage offenders in the community; and we are already making use of GPS tracking devices on a small scale.
Balances the rights of prisoners and victims
Finally – our system is not just about processes; it is about people.
Whilst we strive to do the very best we can, there are no crystal balls. If we measured our success only by the number of serious offences committed by those released by the Parole Board the overwhelming majority of our release decisions are sound. However, whilst deeply regrettable, there have always been a tiny number of cases where those released by the Parole Board commit serious offences. We take each such tragic case extremely seriously, as the public would expect. A serious offence can be a hammer blow to the member who makes the decision. We always seek to learn lessons; but we cannot allow these rare cases detract from the fact that most of those in our prisons should have a second chance.
The Board remains committed to making fair and independent decisions, as swiftly as possible, with care, humanity and courage. I know from speaking to victims, prisoners and their respective families how important our decisions are. Losing a member of your family through violent crime, or through imprisonment, is always devastating and the consequences of that loss has an impact down the generations. That is why we must do our very best to make the best decisions we can.
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