How the parole board is adapting to COVID-19

Parole Board COVID19
How the parole board has gone to a remote hearing system to ensure that prisoners continue to have their applications for parole considered during COVID-19

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How is the parole board making decisions?

This is the sixth in a new blog series chronicling the different ways in which organisations in the criminal justice sector are helping their service users survive the impact of coronavirus. It is written by Martin Jones, Chief Executive of the Parole Board.

If your organisation – statutory, voluntary, or private – would like to share how you’ve had to adapt to be able to continue to provide your service, please get in touch.

It is just over a month since the Parole Board was forced to pause all face-to-face oral hearings as the UK went into effective lockdown. This followed government advice and was done to ensure the safety of everyone involved in the parole process. I wanted to provide an update and some reflections on the Board’s progress amid the public health crisis.

The Board had to act extremely quickly to rethink how it would progress cases, and in doing so has found new and innovative ways to keep the system moving as efficiently as possible. Despite the unprecedented times we find ourselves in, the Parole Board is continuing to progress a significant number of cases every day through remote telephone and video hearings and our new intensive paper process, whilst ensuring the protection of the public which remains our overarching priority

Our principles of fairness, protection of the public and the test for release have not and will not change. But I know this is an anxious time for everyone. Prisoners are entitled to have their cases reviewed in a timely fashion.

I am glad to say that far from grinding to a halt, we continue to make decisions. Provisional figures indicate that well over 3,000 parole decisions have been made since the coronavirus situation began to escalate. 360 prisoners have been directed for release, which is on a par with what I would expect, a further 1,781 people have had their detention reviewed and have been ordered to remain in custody for the protection of the public.

So how are we making those decisions?

Every case received by the Board is initially reviewed on the papers and we have accelerated through this initial review process during the lockdown. However, at the point at which we paused face to face reviews, over three months’ worth of oral hearings, over 2,500 cases, were in jeopardy. Those cases have all needed to be reviewed individually to consider if they can proceed by way of a paper or remote hearing. Following a huge amount of work, the number awaiting a decision as to whether they can proceed, has reduced to under 1,500 – a decrease of 1,000 in a little over a month. The remaining cases are being reviewed to consider if they can be concluded on papers or remotely.

Following our review a huge proportion of cases are being dealt with remotely. Over 500 telephone hearings have already been scheduled for the coming weeks with around 300 already concluded. We have also facilitated nine video hearings and have another 55 set up. These numbers are increasing every day as our dedicated taskforce works to keep cases moving. So far the Board has managed to keep delays and cancellations to a minimum, with 88 cases adjourned due to Covid-19 and 38 cancelled. I see no signs of a backlog emerging yet, though we are monitoring closely.

Separately, the Board has commenced a fresh review of all determinate recall cases which have been previously directed to an oral hearing, but do not yet have a hearing date. We believe that some can be concluded without a face to face hearing and most of the others will be suitable for a remote hearing. We are essentially re-sifting our entire caseload to earmark cases which can be concluded via a paper review, or a remote hearing.

I am glad to say that panel members continue to be extremely pragmatic in allowing hearings to conclude via telephone, and the other parties and witnesses are also being very flexible.

However, despite this, progress I am conscious some more complex cases will need to be conducted via video. The Board has tested a new system that would enable all parties to conduct a video hearing on their laptops. We hope that during May we will be in a position where we can be confident that most prisons can start to support this way of working, so we can progress the more complex and knotty cases.

I have personally written to nearly 50 prison governors to seek their continued support for parole business, including supporting instructions to legal representatives, and ensuring the required IT facilities are in place to carry out hearings remotely.  Despite the significant challenges facing the front line, I have received incredibly positive responses from the Governors I have spoken to and I am hopeful this continued positive cooperation between all parties will maximise the progress we make in the months ahead.

Victims’ voices

I am also deeply aware how vital it is that victims’ voices continue to be heard during the parole process despite face-to-face hearings being paused.  We have a number of cases where the victim was due to attend a parole hearing to read out their victim personal statement (VPS) or had asked for the statement to be read out by someone else on their behalf. In order to ensure that the victim’s wishes continue to be respected at this time we are instead making arrangements for the victim (or other person) to read out the VPS via a Skype meeting to the parole panel.

Below is a breakdown of some key figures amid the lockdown (up to 24th April): 

  • 2,618 decisions have been made at the initial paper assessment stage.  
  • 1,499 hearings need to be reviewed to decide whether a paper assessment or a remote hearing is appropriate – a reduction of 1,000 since March 23.
  • 360 people have been directed for release so far
  • 1,781 people have refused release for the protection of the public
  • 38 hearings have been cancelled due to Covid-19
  • 88 oral hearings have been adjourned due to Covid-19

To put that in context, according to Parole Board figures for 2018/19, an average month would see 240 releases, 810 refusals and 660 oral hearings.

To be clear, no parole review has been forgotten or overlooked; we are doing everything possible to get through our caseload in a timely fashion despite the current restrictions. We will ensure we provide regular communication to people as the situation develops.  Please stay safe.

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3 Responses

  1. Hello, I was wondering if the plight of IPP prisoners was being considered during this period because this would seem to be an area where legitimate releases, could and should be made. I started visitIng a girl in HMP Low Newton as a prison visitor about 12 years ago, she is very bright but hadn’t had a great home life and had been foster homes for a number of years. She committed a crime for which she would have received a three and half year sentence, possibly getting out in less than two years. HOWEVER, she was sentenced under IPP. She was doing really, really well in Durham – she was doing an Open University course, she used to write poetry, she had been on, I believe it was PIPE very successfully and deemed to be ready for release. During her parole hearing she asked to be sent to an open prison as she was very anxious about just being released. This happened but in the new prison there was a misunderstanding with a male officer (who I believe was reprimanded) but she was moved to another jail. Things went downhill not surprisingly as she felt she was the innocent party and was being punished. SHE IS STILL IN PRISON, without a plan in place to work towards release.
    I keep in touch with her regularly and visit when I can although she is at the other end of the country. I have daughters around the same age and it really breaks my heart, to see this clever young lady now approaching, what is deemed to be middle age, still in prison, in my opinion it is inhuman. Since being in prison she has had to deal with the death of her mother and more recently her younger brother committed suicide (she feels if she’d been out of prison she could have prevented this from happening). Prison is serving no purpose for her and from my interactions with her I cannot believe she would be a danger to the public – she should be released with support and this would be an ideal time to do this.

  2. Hi Esther
    As I understand it, IPPs cases are still being considered as well as everyone else who is eligible for parole. I agree with you that IPP sentences are unjust, and the government acknowledged this by stopping them back in 2012. However, until politicians decide to address the matter – which will take political courage – many people sentenced to IPP are stuck in prison, serving much longer than those convicted of more serious offences. Currently, medium and high risk offenders are also excluded from the coronavirus early release scheme.
    Best Wishes

    1. Dear Russell
      Thank you for your swift reply which is much appreciated, I am assuming from your response, i.e. that it would take political courage to address this, that nothing will happen. I’m at a loss as to how I can help this lady.
      Thanks again.

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