Monday, 8 January 2018

Parole Reviews

In the wake of their decision to order the release of convicted sex offender John Worboys, the Parole Board, it seems, will be reviewed. But what exactly will be looked at? Will the review focus, as the Guardian reports, on “how the Parole Board makes its decisions” , leading to “a system overhaul”? Or is it a narrower look at how decisions, once made, are communicated to the public. Whatever its scope, the review will be following on three recent exercises designed to improve the Board’s work.

Making the parole process more transparent was one of the aims of “a comprehensive review of the generic parole process for indeterminate sentence prisoners” undertaken by the Board itself in 2013. One of the proposals was to “improve communications with victims to ensure that they are provided with timely notification of Parole Board decisions, and dates of release or transfer to open conditions where applicable, together with an agreed format i.e. telephone call, email, letter, third party”. Following consultation it was decided that “this proposal will be implemented but actual dates of release will not be communicated to victims”. Given the alleged failure to inform victims about the Worboys decision, - whether this was the responsibility of the Parole Board or the National Probation Service, the new review will probably want to look at this whole area again.

Two years later, the Cabinet Office published a review of the Parole Board as part of its regular scrutiny of arm’s length bodies.  Its 2015 report made one recommendation “to heighten the transparency and openness of the Parole Board, while recognising the nature of its business is at times confidential”. This was that the Board hold an annual open meeting. There have been two such meetings since, but these are not hearings which discuss cases but “an opportunity to see the work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure effective running of the parole system”.  It’s possible that a further one of these so called triennial reviews will be started this year but it won't have the right pace or focus  to meet the demands of the post Worboys moment.  

1n 2016, the rules governing the way the Parole Board works were revised by the Ministry of Justice after the identification by Parliament of defects in the 2011 version. MP’s were involved in approving the new rules which include the provision that parole proceedings must not be made public. But the “negative resolution” approval procedure made it virtually impossible for any MP to challenge this had they wished to. In fact the limit on the disclosure of information about parole was nothing new – it was already in place in the 2011 rules approved by Parliament and in the previous Home Office rules from 2004. The Justice Committee will be looking at the Worboys case but should Parliament should be exercising greater ongoing scrutiny both over the work of the Board and the adequacy of the legal framework governing it?  

Justice Secretary David Lidington has said that his new review will focus on how to allow greater openness about the parole decision-making process and make sure arrangements across the criminal justice system ensure victims are heard. Both are fraught with difficulty.

While the Worboys case is thankfully unusual, it raises some difficult questions particularly about the involvement of victims in the parole process.  How far should or could the right of victims to be informed about cases extend beyond those individuals whose cases led to conviction? Should others, thought to be his victims have been notified in some way about his release? To what extent should the Parole Board have taken into account these additional cases in assessing the risk Worboys poses in the future? How, practically, could they have done  so?  

There are more general issues. As things stand, a victim of crime can provide a statement to the Board and attend an oral hearing to read it if they wish, leaving after they do so.  One thing they cannot say is whether they think the prisoner should be released- and if they do the Board must disregard it. It’s absolutely right that the Board’s focus is on the current and future risk posed by the offender but restricting victims participation doesn’t sit easily with the commitment that they “are heard”.

There are difficult questions too about greater openness. If the Board starts to provide explanations for its decisions, how much information will they place in the public domain? Where a prisoner will live? Their family circumstances? The local community’s attitude towards the prisoner? This is information the Board considers when reaching a decision but its arguable how much should responsibly be shared. Any consideration of increased media access to Parole hearings will need to reflect on the attendance of the press and reporting on proceedings might adversely impact on the participation of prisoners -and indeed victims -in the process.

To his credit, Parole Board Chair Nick Hardwick has already recognised both the case for greater openness and the complexities involved. “So”, he told a conference in November “nothing is going to happen quickly and these are all matters that we need to consider and consult on carefully”.  Following Worboys, his boss has said that decisions will be taken by Easter. Let’s hope it’s not a question of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure.

No comments:

Post a Comment