November 30 2023

Calls for greater powers for the parole system to be independent of ‘government pressure’

Calls for greater powers for the parole system to be independent of ‘government pressure’

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The ‘failing’ parole system lacked ‘independence, power, and discretion’, according to a new study which argues that the parole board itself needs to be ‘reconstituted’ as a properly-funded tribunal free from ‘government pressure’. The recommendations come from the law reform group JUSTICE which reports that backlogs have ‘plagued the parole system in recent years’ and lead to delays in the release of prisoners.

JUSTICE highlighted the controversy over the release of the black cab rapist John Worboys in 2018 which led to the justice minister ‘in effect’ calling for the resignation of the chair of the parole board, Nick Hardwick. ‘In our view, this was inappropriate, and a strong sign of the Parole Board’s lack of real independence…,’ said JUSTICE. It went on to call for the parole board to be ‘fully endowed with the necessary powers and status to undertake its role genuinely independent of Government pressure’.

JUSTICE highlighted the impact on parole of austerity cuts on the justice system (‘severe funding restrictions imposed on the criminal justice system over the past decade’); alongside an increasingly punitive sentencing policy of recent governments as well as the ‘unimaginable pressure’ on the  system as a result of COVID-19.

‘The parole process continues to fail those in prison, victims, and wider society. Many of these issues are not new,’ said the group’s acting legal director, Stephanie Needleman. Back in 2009 report, JUSTICE highlighted the ‘chronic lack of respect and powers from which the Parole Board suffers’ and called for the establishment of an independent tribunal. ‘The consequences are devastating at a human level for those detained and victims of reoffending, as well as at a financial level, given the exorbitant cost of prison,’ Needleman continued.

‘Too many individuals remain in prison unnecessarily, and those who are released are too often denied access to the tools they need to succeed when reintegrating into the community,’ commented chair of JUSTICE’s working party, Professor Nicola Padfield QC (Hon). ‘This must change.’

The JUSTICE report argues that too many people are kept in prison longer than is strictly necessary, well past their tariff or on recall. ‘We recommend that the Secretary of State for Justice should have to justify the continued detention of any individual beyond their minimum term, or of anyone who has been recalled,’ it said. ‘This would better reflect the fact that post tariff indeterminate prisoners are no longer serving the punitive element of their sentence, as well as the rehabilitative aims of the criminal justice system.’

The report notes that the Parole Board’s role in protecting the public was seen as its ‘number one priority’. But notes that ‘for too long’ that purpose had been seen as ‘synonymous with keeping individuals in prison’. ‘The decision not to release is often viewed as a success, rather than a failure for the individual prisoner, their victim, and the general public,’ it says. ‘This suggests a system oriented towards the punishment of an individual, rather than their rehabilitation.’ It goes on to observe that statutory aims of sentencing are the reform and rehabilitation of offenders and argue their  recommendations ‘seek to situate rehabilitation as a crucial tool for protecting the public’.

Key recommendations:

  • Replacing the parole board with a parole tribunal, which will have ‘the necessary powers, respect from third parties (such as police and probation), and authority to make fully independent decisions without Government interference’.
  • Requiring that the state, rather than the individual in prison, ‘justify any continued detention beyond the minimum term, so that the responsibility for demonstrating the (un)manageability of risk is properly allocated’.
  • Reforming the recall process, which would require that facts of an alleged breach of a licence condition are established in a magistrates’ court before the recall takes place, after which the case can go to the Parole Tribunal to consider the issue of risk and whether re-incarceration is appropriate.
  • Placing rehabilitation at the heart of the parole process, by giving the Parole Tribunal oversight of an individual’s progression through prison, including of executive decisions which impact their chance to be released.
  • Greater accessibility of information for those in prison, their families, and victims, so that everyone is given the tools they need to properly participate in the parole process. This includes creating a duty for the newly-established parole tribunal to update those in prison and, where relevant, victims, on the progression of the case, as well as providing general information about the parole process.
  • Greater rigour when imposing licence conditions, requiring that the probation service only be able to request that the parole tribunal impose licence conditions where it has demonstrated, with clear written explanations, how they are reasonable and proportionate, and their impact on an individual’s chances of successful rehabilitation.
  • Significantly expanding the provision of accommodation for those released from prison, so as to guarantee that nobody is released homeless.

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