The future of Parole

Work with Offenders looks at the government’s plans for a new parole service

Earlier this week (Tuesday 20 October), the Prisons and Probation Minister Lucy Frazer announced a “root and branch” review of the parole system in England and Wales. The review is intended to continue to improve the transparency of the Parole Board’s work but will also look at more fundamental changes, including whether the current model is the most effective and efficient system for deciding whether prisoners should continue to be detained.

How does parole work now?

Currently, parole hearings are conducted by a panel of between one and three members who come from a variety of backgrounds, including judges and psychiatrists, and receive extensive training. The panel considers a wide range of evidence and hears the opinions of professionals who have been working with a prisoner, for example a probation officer or prison psychologist, and listens to victims about the impact the crime had on their lives. The decision the panel must make is whether the risk a prisoner poses has reduced and can now be managed safely outside of prison.

The work of the Parole Board has increased significantly in recent years and it now holds over 30 times more oral hearings than it did twenty years ago – around 8,000 every year.

The review 

The main issues which the review will consider include:

  • whether the constitution and status of the Parole Board needs to change in order to better reflect the court-like decisions it takes and to make sure it has the necessary powers.
  • whether alternatives such as a tribunal might deliver the parole function in a more efficient way.
  • whether additional measures are needed to strengthen its powers, for example specific new legislative powers to compel witnesses to attend hearings and to enforce the directions it makes, in addition to its existing powers as an independent judicial body

The first step in the review is a public consultation inviting views on whether victims should be allowed to observe parole hearings and whether the media and wider public could have greater access to hearings, while also avoiding the risk of making it harder for the Parole Board to make the best decisions to protect the public.

Although the consultation is open to anyone who wishes to contribute, it is aimed primarily at people with experience or knowledge of the parole process, victims of crime, and media representatives.

The government will need to ensure that any move to greater openness does not make it harder for the Parole Board to make the best decisions to protect the public.

Tailored review 

On the same day, the government also today published a ‘Tailored Review’ of the Parole Board, conducted over the last 18 months, in line with the Cabinet Office requirement to review all public bodies at least once every parliament. The purpose of Tailored Reviews is to provide assurance to government and the public on the continuing need for the functions delivered by public bodies, as well as assessing the potential for improved efficiency, effectiveness, governance and different delivery models.

The Review notes positively the Parole Board’s response to a number of challenging events in its recent history, including the Osborn Supreme Court judgment in 2013 (which gave prisoners the right to make oral representations to a parole hearing) and the John Worboys  High Court judgment in 2018 which required more transparency to parole board decisions. The Review cites a number of rapid improvements made by the Parole Board and says that the Board has a “strong record on public protection”.

However, it also notes that there remains a backlog of decisions and that parole decisions are frequently delayed. The Review concludes that the immediate priority is for the Government to support and improve the Board’s efficiency and effectiveness. Most importantly, the Review concludes that the

“Parole Board should, therefore, retain its current operating model as a Non-Departmental Public Body in the short-term, whilst working to more clearly demonstrate the judicial nature of its decisions and its independence from government.”

Conclusion 

Although the Tailored Review has concluded that the Parole Board is doing a good job under its current model, one of the main issues for the Government to consider in its “Root and Branch” review is whether the parole process should move to become a more open form of tribunal given the serious impact of parole decisions both on the human rights and liberty of prisoners and on the victims against whom they have committed crimes. It will be interesting to see the submissions to the public consultation.