08:35, March 29 242 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-29 08:35:08
'We're not swayed by emotion': Parole Board members on how they reach their decisions

The Parole Board is “probably, almost definitely” keeping people in prison who do not need to be there, and inmates face a postcode lottery on whether they will be released, depending on local funding for support.

These are some of the revelations made by members of the independent body whose role it is to decide when to release inmates who have served the minimum of their sentences.

Until now, the board’s decisions have been private. After a parole hearing, the prisoner is sent a detailed letter explaining its conclusion, but the board has a statutory duty to prevent its proceedings being disclosed publicly.

Amid renewed public and political scrutiny of the Parole Board in the wake of its decision to block the release of the black-cab rapist John Worboys, there has been intense debate over its future.

The board’s then chair, Nick Hardwick, said he would support greater transparency in the decision-making process.

Q&A

What is the Parole Board?

The Parole Board is an independent body that carries out risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can be safely released into the community.

It manages the early release of prisoners serving fixed-length sentences of four years or more; the release of prisoners who are serving life sentences or indeterminate sentences for public protection; and the re-release of prisoners who have been given life or indeterminate sentences and were then re-imprisoned.

Some prisoners seeking release may have to attend a hearing before Parole Board members.

Up to three members of a panel will decide whether to release the prisoner based on a file of documents including information on the inmate’s behaviour in prison, their plans once released and risk of committing further crimes. Medical, psychiatric and psychological evidence can also be heard.

As well as the prisoner, a solicitor, psychologist and witnesses could attend. The victim of the prisoner’s offences may also be present.

The Parole Board has 234 members who make the assessments and decisions and employs 120 members of staff to support them.

As an initial step, members of the Parole Board have agreed to speak openly for the first time about their work amid renewed debate about its operations in interviews conducted before Hardwick resigned earlier this week.

‘We are not there to make a moral judgment about how awful or not someone is’

Thomasina, independent forensic psychologist and university lecturer; psychologist parole member since 2010

The public seem to think the Parole Board lets out dangerous people without thinking about it. The fact that the serious further offence rate is so low [less than 1%] suggests to me that we probably, almost definitely, keep people in prison who don’t need to be there and who we probably could let out. It’s tricky, though, to know who those people are. We’re looking for evidence of ongoing risk.

What we are not there to do is to make a moral judgment about how awful or not something was or someone is. We are directed by the secretary of state to consider a specific test: “Whether it is necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner remain confined.” This test makes it clear that our assessment and judgment is about risk and not about morality. At times this may be unpalatable and may seem incomprehensible, particularly from public perception, but that is our role. We are not there to make a judgment about whether someone’s sentence was long enough.

I have three broad areas I want to know about when interviewing offenders: what do they understand about their offending and how and why it happened; what do they understand about what’s changed about themselves since they’ve been in prison; and what’s going to be different about the future? If they can help me understand those three things, that might be persuasive in me deciding to release them.

One persuasive factor is whether the risk management plan drawn up by the offender manager is realistic and can manage the risk they pose to the public (and it is worth highlighting that no one can be considered to be “no risk” – not even a non-offender). If the answer is no because the funding isn’t available to provide the necessary services and manage the risk to the public, then it’s very sad but our answer to whether the offender should be released is still no. There will be some places in the country where resources are greater than others, and where different services are set up. It could be seen to be a postcode lottery but that’s beyond our scope.

I’m in favour of more transparency in terms of how decisions are made and how the board works. But I also wonder how much it would alter what people would be prepared to say at the hearings if they knew it was going to be released to the public. Caution on their side might lead to evidence being withheld that would affect our ultimate decision. That could lead to offenders getting released or staying in longer than they might need to. The bottom line is that we need good quality information and if there’s anything that affects that, anything that impairs that process, I’d be worried.

‘We discuss in detail a lot of very intimate information’

Edward, former police superintendent of 30 years’ standing, independent Parole Board member for eight years. Has chaired board hearings for three years

I do understand the public disquiet around the Worboys decision: people feel he hasn’t served a sufficient sentence to match the crimes. But a lot of the outcry is because people don’t understand why the decision was made and what facts it was based upon. That sort of public transparency is not allowed at the moment under the Parole Board rules.

To increase confidence in the system we need the public to understand how the Parole Board makes our decisions. Currently we discuss in detail a lot of very intimate information both about the prisoner and, in sex offender cases, the crime and the victim. But I do think that in the name of open justice, if [an open hearing] can be facilitated it should be.

I also think some form of decision letter from the board needs to be made public, explaining the reasons and the evidence on which it was based. We could also use social media more: tweet about how many oral hearings are taking place this month, for example, and be more open about the type of evidence we consider when we come to make a decision.

Based on my experience of being a Parole Board member and chair, I’m confident that the decision in the Worboys case was far more forensic than the public give the board credit for.

We work hard to ensure that we’re impervious to outside influence and to emotions. It can be hard: when I first open a dossier and read about the crimes that a sex offender, say, has committed, I sometimes have to get up and make myself a cup of tea and calm myself down. In other cases, you’d need a heart of stone not to feel sympathy for the childhood and lives these people have had.

But after that you start to have to use your skills to analyse facts and prepare for the hearing. We can’t allow ourselves to be swayed by emotions in decision-making processes. Our decisions really are based on the evidence and the facts, the psychologist report, the attempts the prisoner has made to rehabilitate himself, and the drug tests.

Having said that, we are human. I’ve had discussions where colleagues have said to me: “I really don’t want to let this guy out but the evidence says he’s safe to be released.” So we release him.

‘The Parole Board is far more nuanced than people think’

Clarke, former prison governor, independent panel member since 2010

The Worboys case attracted a lot of publicity and I think the difficulty is that if we don’t respond to the interests of the public and the media now then we are indicating that we are something like a secret society, that we have something to hide. And I don’t think we have anything to hide.

I have no problem at all with people understanding how it is that we reached a decision, insofar as they can be told in the publication of a summary decision containing what evidence we considered, where it came from, how we reached the decision, how the individual met the test for release and why we were satisfied about the case.

I am very proud of the work I do. The fact is that we do a really difficult job under enormous pressure and very difficult circumstances, and make difficult decisions to protect the public. If people understood more about how the Parole Board works, I think they will see that it is far more nuanced than they currently think and that it also involves a huge amount of skill.

The greatest subtleties of my job include, for example, understanding what people are telling you and what they are really saying. If an offender is telling you one thing that’s clearly not true because it’s contradicted by something that you’ve read in their dossier, you have to have the courage to say: “Well actually, you told someone two years ago something that completely contradicts what you just said.” And say that in a way that isn’t so challenging that they get completely fed up and won’t answer any more questions. There’s nothing worse than a prisoner who’s getting himself in a state.

What rings my alarm bells in a hearing is if the offender has no understanding of how they function or the consequences of what they do. It’s also not good if they’ve learned nothing from all the work they’ve done in prison. Nor is a lack of knowledge and understanding about why they offended in the first place.

‘Setting and varying licence conditions is an important part of our job’

Michael, judicial Parole Board member and panel chair for eight years

I do agree that the Parole Board needs to be more open. But the question of how transparent we should be is quite difficult because there are arguments on both sides, ranging from the extreme – that we should be like any other court and, instead of doing a private hearing at the prison, should actually hold it in a public courtroom – to the other end of the scale, releasing a summary decision containing the barest outline of why we’ve reached the decision we have.

I personally don’t think our hearings should be held in open court because there’s a real risk in revealing details of the prisoner’s mental health and other intimate details. I’m also sure that many victims wouldn’t want the details of the crime against them made public many years after the event. There is also an argument that it might distort the evidence of the professional witnesses if they knew their names and recommendations would be made public.

We’ve been talking to other countries about what they do. We were quite envious because some have powers that we don’t. For example, we don’t have any power to order where offenders should go. All we can do is consider and decide whether to approve the release and risk management plan being put forward by the professionals.

What the Parole Board can do is set the conditions. There’s been discussion in the Worboys case about exclusion zones. We don’t just rubberstamp the conditions proposed by the offender manager. We are not even bound by the standard list of conditions – we can order it to be tailor-made. Setting and varying licence conditions is an important part of our job because our bottom-line question is: would the prisoner be manageable on licence in the community?

‘We’re involved in assessing terrible offences. It’s difficult work’

Aashi, former civil servant specialising in criminal justice and penal policy. An independent member of the panel and has just qualified as a panel chair

Worboys will be a game-changer in terms of transparency but not in terms of how the board makes its decisions. Any move to transparency now is going to seem inextricably linked to Worboys, but the board was already thinking through how open we should be to the public before Worboys.

We certainly shouldn’t be pushed any further down this road than we’re comfortable with, to appeal to a certain cohort. But the public needs to be aware of who the panels speak to when reaching their decisions, what level of specialist advice they seek and the brief indicators that lead them to arrive at their decision.

We’re involved in assessing terrible offences. It’s difficult work, trawling through all of that. But it’s really satisfying, particularly when you see the turnaround in the prisoner. It’s a good day’s work when you can progress someone into the community. Equally, it’s a good day’s work when you give someone a good, fair hearing and decide the risk they continue to pose to the public means they must stay in the prison estate.

The hardest choices can be sex offenders who have been offending over a significant period of time, often decades, but all those episodes have been dealt with at one court hearing. In these cases, an offender might appear to be quite low-risk according to the evidence presented at his trial, but we know from other evidence that there are multiple victims and that the gravity has been very serious, and so we believe him to be high- or very high-risk. In these cases, we ask the offender and professionals to talk us through why they think he’s medium-risk and then make our own assessment of risk, which might not concur with theirs.

I find it incredibly helpful when the prisoner goes into a deep level of detail and can admit to me what sexual thoughts they still have and what they will do in terms of seeking help from professionals who can support them. We might decide to release the offender on the grounds that although they are still having sexual thoughts, we’re persuaded that they’re dealing with them and are able to communicate them to professionals able to support them. But if that was communicated in a decision letter – that they’re having sexual thoughts – it could be taken out of context.

When we’re dealing with sex offenders, the panel will want to understand what level of insight the offender has about his offending – what he did and why he did it. Then we need to know that he’ll be mindful of the triggers in future so that he can avoid further offending if he comes across them. If we open that process up to the victims, I’m not sure we’ll get that genuine level of honesty from the offender.

Names have been changed.

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