13:42, March 29 131 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-29 13:42:09
The Guardian view on the Worboys parole case: verdict on a system

On Wednesday the high court ruled that the jailed serial sex attacker John Worboys must face a new Parole Board hearing on his application for release on licence. This is the right outcome both for his victims and the general public. Yet it raises major questions about larger failings in the criminal justice system. The Parole Board chair, Nick Hardwick, has been forced to resign after the court quashed its panel’s earlier ruling on Worboys. Mr Hardwick is being made a scapegoat for the wider system. It was that system that let the women victims down, not Mr Hardwick. The justice secretary David Gauke’s insistence on forcing him out is shabby. Each should accept a due share of the blame.

Worboys was jailed in 2009 after he was found guilty of 19 offences against 12 women, including rape and sexual assault. For years after his conviction he showed no contrition. But in late 2017, a Parole Board hearing decided he could be released on licence. This followed what the high court called the rapist’s “deftness in impression management” and his “limited” acknowledgment of his offending in his application. Police believe that Worboys committed crimes against 105 women before being caught. It is clearly in the victims’ interest, and in that of the public, that a less limited and unmanaged account of Worboys’ qualifications for release should now take place.

The importance of the court’s ruling goes beyond one high-profile case with what the court called “many exceptional features”. Three of its findings strike at the heart of the current parole system. The court said the board should have carried out more extensive inquiries, that it should consider appointing a judge to chair the panel, and that the Parole Board should be more open about its decisions, for which no reasons are currently given. Reforms such as these have often been discussed, but not acted upon. With the court now insisting on them, a wider rethinking and restructuring of parole is portended, which Mr Hardwick would have been an ideal person to oversee. Yet the rulings do not affect parole alone. They have implications for decisions to prosecute, for sentencing, and for prisons management too.

A major part of the problem is that, over the years, parole has metastasised from an administrative process that was essentially about prisoner management into one that is, in effect, a resentencing of the prisoner. When parole was introduced in the 1960s, it was an independent system to control prison behaviour and numbers, in which the prospect of early release was an incentive to inmates on determinate sentences to comply and rehabilitate themselves. With the extension of indeterminate sentences in the 1990s, hearings inescapably took on an even graver responsibility; parole is now a quasi-judicial process. Indeterminate sentences have now been ended (except for life prisoners), but those serving them remain in jail. The Parole Board’s workload has grown exponentially, with a large backlog of cases; around 3,000, said Mr Gauke this week.

The high court ruling also throws down a spending gauntlet. Since 2011, justice ministry spending has been cut by 13%, with a further 11% cut by 2020. Staff numbers are down by 25%. Each of the reforms implied in the court ruling has spending implications. With crime rising, police numbers at a 20-year low, prisons increasingly crowded and more prisoners serving longer sentences, the scope for radical improvement is extremely constrained unless cuts are reversed. This week’s ruling provides justice for Worboys’ victims, but it also highlights a wider crisis.

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