Parole: adapting to the lockdown

Work with Offenders finds out how the parole board has made changes to its working practices in the wake of coronavirus

There has been plenty of media attention paid to how prisons have coped with the threat of coronavirus. Overall, most commentators agree that the prison system has done quite a good job in containing the virus, although this has been at the expense of very restrictive regimes with the vast majority of prisoners spending almost every day in their cell.

This has been an ordeal for most prisoners, but imagine that you are in prison at the moment and were hoping that your parole hearing which was coming up in a couple of weeks was going to result in your early release. Suddenly, not only has day-to-day life become much tougher – stuck in a cell with no prospect of a visit from friends or family – but you’re now worried that your hopes of being let out on parole are also about to be dashed. Before seeing how the parole board has adapted to the pandemic, let’s have a quick recap about how parole decisions are typically made.

The parole process

The Parole Board decides whether prisoners who are serving certain types of sentences can be released. The sentences dealt with by the Parole Board include life sentences, indeterminate sentences for public protection, some fixed sentences and recall cases (meaning that the offender was previously released but has been subsequently returned to prison custody). The Parole Board can also advise on moves of some prisoners from a closed to an open prison.

The parole process is complicated. It usually takes 6 months, but can sometimes take longer. The first stage of all parole reviews consists of one Parole Board member reviewing the prisoner’s dossier. The dossier is a collection of documents about the prisoner, including reports and information about their offending, progress made in custody and their risk management plan. Using the information contained in the dossier, the member will either decide that the case requires an oral hearing or give a negative decision. In some cases, the member can recommend a transfer to open conditions and for certain types of sentence they can release a prisoner based on the information in the dossier.

If an oral hearing is required, this will be conducted by a panel. The panel can be made up of one, two or three members. They will meet with the prisoner and other witnesses who will give evidence on the risk the prisoner poses.

The decision-making process is complex, with many different factors to consider. Not all decisions made by members will be popular despite them remaining as fair and objective as they can. They will consider a wide range of evidence before arriving at a decision, including the original evidence of offending, sentencing remarks and evidence of changes in behaviour and attitude achieved through the offender completing programmes whilst in custody.

There are three different potential outcomes of a parole hearing:

  1. Release - once the Parole Board has directed the release of a prisoner, it is up to the Ministry of Justice to make the arrangements.
  2. Open Conditions - the Parole Board can recommend that a prisoner moves to an open prison, however it is for the Ministry of Justice to make the final decision.
  3. Further Review (sometimes referred to as a knockback) - under current legislation, the prisoner will be eligible for a further review within two years. The date of the next review will be set by the Ministry of Justice.

Parole and coronavirus

In early April the parole board was forced to suspend all face-to-face oral hearings to observe both the general lockdown requirements and the specific prison ones which prevented people from outside prison (excluding prison officers) from entering custodial establishment to prevent the spread of the virus.

However, rather than just washing its hands of the problem, the parole board has adapted swiftly and decisively. At the point at which face to face reviews were suspended, over three months’ worth of oral hearings (2,500 cases) were in jeopardy. The board decided that all these cases had to be reviewed individually to consider if they could proceed by way of a paper or remote hearing.

The outcome of this review  was that  a huge proportion of cases are now being dealt with remotely. In the first month, 300 telephone parole board hearings were held  with the board starting to hold video hearings too with these reserved for more complex cases. The board has been careful to honour its commitment to victims who have a right to attend hearings and read out their personal statement. Victims (or people appointed on their behalf) are still able to do this via a Skype meeting call directly to the parole panel.

Despite having to process 26,000 decisions per year, the board was able to progress much of its normal business in the first month of the crisis, adjourning just 88 oral hearings and cancelling 38.

It will be interesting to see whether the parole board can retain some of the benefits of its new streamlined approach when prison lockdown is finally lifted – something that is not currently envisaged for several months.

It will, of course, be important to see whether the proportion of decisions recommending release remains roughly similar or whether operating on a remote basis tilts the decision-making process in either direction.