The Ministry of Justice has launched a “root and branch” review of the parole system that will consider a major overhaul of the Parole Board.
The review will consider how successful recent reforms to the Parole Board have been, and whether the Parole Board model is “the most effective and efficient system for deciding whether prisoners should continue to be detained”, the MoJ said in an announcement yesterday.
“This review will be the culmination of work to examine and reform the parole system which began in 2018 following the Parole Board’s direction to release John Worboys which was subsequently quashed by the High Court,” the department said.
A judicial review found that the Parole Board panel had sanctioned the release of Worboys, the so-called “black cab rapist”, without enquiring sufficiently into other allegations made against the prisoner. The case led to the sacking of Parole Board chair Nick Hardwick, and sparked reforms to increase the transparency of the board’s decisions.
In May 2018, a rule change allowed the Parole Board to produce summaries explaining its decisions, and last year the government added a mechanism making it easier for the Lord Chancellor, victims and prisoners to appeal Parole Board decisions without going through the courts.
In February 2019, when the latest change was announced, then-justice secretary David Gauke said a lack of transparency was “one of the main criticisms levelled at the parole system”.
The review will aim to judge the effectiveness of these reforms, as well as considering “more fundamental changes”, the MoJ said.
Critically, the review will consider whether the Parole Board should get extra powers, and whether the existing model of hearings should be reformed or replaced.
Under the current model of parole hearings, a panel of between one and three board members must listen to evidence and opinions from professionals who have worked with a prisoner, as well as the victims of their crime.
The panel must determine whether the risk the prisoner poses to the public has reduced during their sentence and can be managed safely outside prison.
The review will consider whether alternative models, such as a tribunal, may be more efficient, and whether extra measures are needed to strengthen its powers. These could include new legislative powers to compel witnesses to attend hearings and to enforce the directions it makes.
The review will consider 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”, the MoJ said.
Justice minister Lucy Frazer said reforms over the last two years had made the Parole Board’s work “more transparent and easier to understand for victims and the wider public”.
“We now have the opportunity to take a more fundamental look at the system to ensure it continues to protect people by releasing offenders only when it is safe to do so and does this in the most effective way,” she said.
The MoJ noted that the Parole Board’s workload has “increased significantly in recent years”. It now holds around 8,000 oral hearings a hear – more than 30 times the number it did twenty years ago.
Its chief executive, Martin Jones, said in February the board’s workload was likely to “increase further”, after the government announced it would introduce emergency legislation to prevent convicted terrorists from being released from prison without a Parole Board review.
He said at the time that the board had grown in the last few years to accommodate its growing caseload, which had increased year-on-year for 15 years. He said it has been given 25% more funding in recent years to enable it to cope.
As the first step of the review, a public consultation on access to parole hearings opened yesterday. People have been asked to submit their views on whether victims of crimes should be allowed to attend parole hearings, and whether the public and media should have greater access to hearings.
At the moment, victims are entitled to read a statement about the impact of an offender’s crime but cannot attend the rest of the hearing because of the sensitive nature of discussions – which can include prisoners’ medical information, and graphic and potentially distressing descriptions of crimes.
Any changes must happen in a way that mitigates the risk of making it harder for the Parole Board to “make the best decisions to protect the public”; and the risk that “prisoners may be less forthcoming if hearings were held in public”, the MoJ said in its announcement.
The review will report next summer.