The government’s chaotic approach to the future of parole in England and Wales led to the Ministry of Justice making the Parole Board’s ‘already difficult job close to impossible’. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice published its Root and Branch Review of the Parole System (available to view here), which proposed the creation of a three-tier test to protect against the release of serious offenders to open prisons.
However, as revealed by documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by the Prison Reform Trust, Dominic Raab implemented the changes to the criteria for open conditions despite objections by the Parole Board based on potential risks to public safety and concerns about the practical implementation of reforms.
‘Testing in open conditions for some prisoners is critical to assessing whether that person has sufficiently reduced his/her risk, in a controlled fashion, and whether an offender is ready for release,’ wrote the Board in a letter to the Ministry of Justice in May 2022. ‘If that option is off the table, it is inevitable that some of the most complex individuals will be released directly from closed conditions into the community, with less certainty on how they might behave.’
The Board also criticised proposals to give ministers the final say in a small number of cases and to allow the Justice Secretary to veto the release of individual prisoners, citing potential incompatibility with Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights. ‘The ability to challenge a decision is a fundamental part of the criminal justice system. As such, we have always welcomed developments which enabled people seeking to review our decisions where they believe they are irrational, unfair or unlawful.’
‘Article 5(4) of the European Convention on Human Rights assigns the role of making decisions about restrictions on liberty to a court… the final decision on the release of prisoners should be a matter for a court or a court- like body – a function that the Parole Board currently performs.’
Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, commented: ‘These papers give us a glimpse of the chaos behind the scenes that Dominic Raab’s cavalier approach to changes in the parole system has caused. They reinforce the suspicion that some of those changes have been motivated solely by a personal obsession with the political inconvenience high-profile cases create.’
‘These papers show changes that are unjustified, unprincipled and underprepared – it is no wonder the people who have to implement them are angry.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘We are overhauling the parole system to make protecting the public from dangerous criminals its number one priority. Our reforms will champion the rights of victims, make public safety the overriding factor in all parole decisions, and introduce a ministerial check for the release of the most serious offenders – putting victims first, cutting crime and making our streets safer.’