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.
So, what are the facts?
Last year around 65,000 people were released from prison. Just 3,000 of those releases followed consideration by the Parole Board.
Well over 75% of the prisoners we review each year are assessed by the Board as being too dangerous to release. Our decisions can result in decades of additional time in prison after the period for punishment has passed.
Over 40% of the c9,000 people currently serving an indeterminate sentence remain in prison because the Parole Board continues to assess them as being too dangerous to release.
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 redemption. 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 (0.0001% 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?