Root and branch review
The only way is up
On 20th October the Government published the outcome of the Tailored Review and launched the Root and Branch Review. The Root and Branch Review should be the last stage in a series of reviews of the Parole Board and the surrounding system that have taken place since 2018.
Far from being fatigued, I see these reviews as an opportunity to improve the operation of the system and point to areas that need further improvement.
The Root and Branch Review will explore a number of crucial areas:
- An evaluation of the parole reforms to date
- The constitution and the status of the Parole Board
- Improving public understanding and confidence
- Openness and transparency
Whilst the Parole Board will be feeding in a full response to the review, this blog provides some reflections on these areas and poses some questions for the future.
The Parole Reforms
There has been significant change at the Parole Board since 2018; and my assessment is that they have improved the system.
Parole Board summaries
Prior to 2018 there was a blanket Rule that prevented the disclosure of information about parole proceedings to victims or the public. Such a Rule was clearly untenable and in 2018 the rules were changed allowing the Board to introduce a new service providing summaries of decisions to victims and the public. Nearly 4,000 summaries have now been issued and I now see it as a key service to victims. Looking back, it seems hard to understand that we made such fundamental decisions without explaining why to victims and the public. We now see material from our summaries routinely published in media reports of our decisions.
Looking forward, I think that there is scope to increase the number of victims signing up to the Victim Contact Scheme so they can read information for themselves. There are occasions when victims only emerge after the decision is made. We need some focused effort to raise awareness of the scheme as well as moving to a system where victims are auto-enrolled into the scheme unless they opt out.
In 2019 the Board implemented the reconsideration system which provides a legal mechanism for a prisoner, or the Secretary of State, to review a Parole Board decision if they believe the decision was irrational or involved procedural unfairness. Crucially such decisions can be made much more quickly and at less cost to the public purse than a full Judicial Review. We are routinely publishing those decisions. Crucially they provide an opportunity to properly explain the legal principles underpinning our decisions and signalling that our decisions must be focused on a fair assessment of all of the evidence presented and must ultimately be focused on one factor alone: “is the prisoner’s continued detention necessary for the protection of the public”.
The impact of COVID
Whilst most recent changes have been driven by changes of the Rules; the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic has been just as significant.
- Since the virus hit the Board has conducted nearly 5,000 hearings remotely via video or telephone.
- Our release rate at 23% is pretty much unchanged: but by increasing throughput we have released significantly more people.
- The number of people waiting for a hearing has reduced by around 40%.
- The number of victims reading out a statement at a hearing has tripled.
We should do more to properly explain how the Parole Board makes its decisions to victims and the public. We also need to draw lessons from COVID working into our future operating model to ensure we have the most efficient system.
Constitution and status
When the Parole Board was established under the Criminal Justice Act 1967 it was a purely advisory body. Final decisions were made by Ministers. Things are very different today and we make thousands of decisions every year. As a result of our changing status; discussion as to whether we should become a full court or tribunal have been ongoing for over a decade.
The fact that this is still a matter of discussion is a surprise given the fact that the Board is clearly regarded as a court and is quite obviously taking judicial decisions including holding over 8,000 hearings a year and issuing full written decisions which are highly justiciable. The higher courts have clearly signalled our court-like status.
Whilst we are sometimes described as an “arms-length body” – in truth we are at finger-tips length of Government and nobody seriously questions our independence of Government when making our decisions. The Board’s message to its members remains constant, to make decisions based on the law and the evidence, not the potential popularity or otherwise .
I do however think there is a compelling case to re-emphasise our independence in primary legislation. Parties and witnesses sometimes need to be reminded, if necessary through compulsion that our directions are not requests; they must be complied with, as if they were a court order.
Improving public understanding and confidence
A huge amount of work has been undertaken in recent years to improve understanding of parole.
It is worth repeating some key facts:
- Over 90% of those released from prison each year are released automatically without Parole Board involvement.
- The Parole Board only consider release of a prisoner after the period set for punishment by the judge and Parliament has passed.
- Our sole focus is risk, not punishment, and in almost all cases Parole Board consideration will mean that a prisoner spends longer in prison, sometimes decades.
- Less than 1 in 4 of those whose cases are considered each year, are released.
- Whilst our decisions to release prisoners may sometimes attract criticism, our decision making is sound and around 1% of people released by the Parole Board are charged with a serious further offence and far fewer are actually convicted.
I think the public would have greater confidence if they understood the important role the Parole Board plays in ensuring that prisoners are only kept in prison where required for the protection of the public. Most people accept that prisoners deserve a second chance after they have been punished. The Parole Board is increasingly looking for opportunities to improve understanding by inviting journalists to write or broadcast about our work, and through the use of social media. The Board also has an open door to offer training to other professionals working in the system.
Openness and transparency
Given my earlier observations, it should come as no surprise that I see greater openness and transparency as an opportunity we need to embrace. I have seen no detriment from our provision of summaries and publication of reconsideration decisions.
Provided there are appropriate safeguards so as not to disrupt the proceedings I would welcome a staged approach to opening up hearings where it is in the public interest to do so. In other jurisdictions journalists can watch high profile parole hearings. Subject to consideration of reporting restrictions and safeguards, I can see a path to allowing that.
Our work during COVID has demonstrated that by using technology we may be able to facilitate victims greater access to parole hearings; although we do need to think about the wider support that may be needed to sensitively help victims through a process that they may find difficult and traumatic.
Could we hold a parole hearing in a court building with a public gallery? I am certain that such a move, if thought through, would do a tremendous amount to increase confidence that the Parole Board is making fair and robust judicial decisions for the protection of the public.