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The politicisation of parole
Details of the government's "root and branch" review of the parole system

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Root and Branch Review

Earlier this week (30 March 2022), the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab announced the details of the government’s Root and Branch Review of the Parole System, setting out plans for the future of parole. There are two main themes to the review which, to use the government’s own words, are:

  1. To protect the public by keeping dangerous offenders off the streets.
  2. To give victims a voice in the criminal justice system.

Five key themes are highlighted:

Key reforms include:

  • making the Statutory Release Test clearer.
  • creating a top-tier cohort of offenders who have committed the most serious crimes whose release decisions will be subject to a more precautionary approach, including new ministerial oversight.
  • greater ministerial oversight of prisoners’ moves to open conditions.
  • increasing the number of Parole Board members with law enforcement experience.
  • increasing victim participation in parole hearings.

The proposed reforms are one of the reason why the MoJ predicts that the prison population will grow by 15,000 to 95,000 by 2026.

While there is probably a consensus that there should be more consideration of, involvement of, and communication with victims throughout the parole process, there is considerable concern about the tone of the review which seems to imply that too many people are released on parole. The Parole Board has recently released information that just one in four prisoners who are reviewed for parole are granted it and less than 1% of the people released on parole go on to commit a serious further offence.

The debate about the future of parole takes place in context of the fact that we currently imprison people for much longer than we have ever done. The latest data (courtesy of the Prison Reform Trust Bromley FactFile) shows that two and a half times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more in the 12 months to June 2021 than the same period in 2008.

Other key facts include:

  • For more serious, indictable offences, the average prison sentence is now 55.3 months—nearly two years longer than in 2008.
  • People serving mandatory life sentences for murder are spending more of their sentence in prison. On average they spend 17 years in custody, up from 13 years in 2001.
  • Judges are also imposing longer minimum terms. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 13 years in 2000 to 20 years in 2020.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Interestingly, the review starts with an overall assessment that the parole board is an effective body before proposing a number of wide-ranging reforms. Here is that assessment in the review’s own words:

“The overall conclusion is that, for the majority of prisoners whose release is subject to Parole Board risk assessment, the current system effectively fulfils its primary function of protecting the public by keeping in prison offenders who continue to present a risk to the public and only releasing those whom it is safe to do so.”

However, the review also says that:

“there continue to be cases involving the most serious crimes which give rise to significant public concern, and seriously undermine confidence in the system.”

The government argues that the current system 

places the onus on the system to demonstrate that the offender poses a risk and should therefore not be released, rather than assuming that the offender should continue to be detained unless it can be actively demonstrated that there is no longer a risk to the public.” 

This is something that many people subject to parole and their lawyers would contest. Nevertheless, the government wants to “put the emphasis firmly back on public protection” by:

  • Enshrining in law the expectation that the Parole Board will take a more precautionary approach. The wording in legislation will leave no room for interpretation and make clear that the only priority is whether a prisoner is safe to release
  • Greater ministerial scrutiny on the release of the most dangerous offenders, including a new power to block their release in the interests of public safety
  • Changing the law to increase the proportion of Parole Board members from policing backgrounds, and ensure they sit on hearings for the most dangerous offenders. Their first-hand experience in dealing with serious offenders and the risk they pose will put a greater focus on public protection in parole hearings. Currently, less than 5 per cent of the Parole Board’s membership falls into this category.

The one proposal most criticised by legal and penal reform commentators is the granting of  new powers for ministers to refuse the release of highest-risk prisoners, essentially making parole a political rather than legal decision for high profile cases. Indeed, it is hard not to read the review as predominantly a political document, designed to portray a government that is tough on crime, rather than one that is trying to deliver a more efficient, effective and fairer parole system.

These will be worrying times for all people in prison serving long sentences.


Thanks to Ted Erski for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Pixabay.

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