12:24, April 01 112 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-01 12:24:10
Victims of sexual violence are right to fear another John Worboys

When the Parole Board decision to release John Worboys was reported in the media in early January, I was asked to comment. This was because I was representing two of his victims, DSD and NBV, in a successful challenge of the police investigation under the Human Rights Act.

My clients had not been consulted, and first heard about the decision in the news. They were shocked and horrified. Both were convinced he would offend again and asked if there was anything they could do. Calls from many other victims followed; some had reported him previously but their cases were not prosecuted, others had never come forward before – but now felt compelled to do whatever they could to stop someone they believed remained a danger to women from being freed to offend again.

While the vast majority of the public shared the victims’ belief that the decision defied logic, some legal commentators asked for calm, reminding us that “the usually risk-averse Parole Board” was expert. As a lawyer who has represented women convicted of killing violent partners and going through the parole process, I am aware of Parole Board decisions requiring a life-sentence prisoner to serve years beyond her tariff because of evidence of some mental instability not uncommon in victims of trauma.

So how did the Parole Board get it so wrong and what lessons might we learn from its mistakes? Well, partly, as the court found, the failure lay with the secretary of state, whose officials had responsibility for compiling the material for consideration by the board.

Although there were references to Worboys’ wider offending, details of relevant evidence was not put before the panel. For example, the high court judgment against the police that documented how Worboys was ultimately linked to 105 reported attacks on women was not included. Second, the Crown Prosecution Service had failed in deciding to prosecute only a sample of offences that had taken place over a relatively short time span. This led to the insultingly short eight-year minimum tariff, and the Parole Board wrongly restricting its considerations of Worboys’ risk by referring to only those crimes he was convicted of.

The board relied on the reports of three forensic psychologists who supported the release decision and, despite opposition from his offender manager and other prison staff, concluded: “You have learned to be open and honest with professionals and you are assessed as being compliant” … And “you say that SOTP [the sexual offences treatment programme] has taught you to identify risk factors and put in place strategies to self-manage risks”.

Worboys attended an SOTP which was subsequently withdrawn because it was found to have led to an increase in offending. Such courses may do little more than teach manipulative prisoners how to act and say the right thing to secure release.

Risk assessment and sex offender treatment are focused on the risk of repeating acts of sexual violence, or of being reconvicted for a sexual offence. However, that risk is measured in statistical outcomes that may be virtually meaningless when we know that most sex offences are not reported, and that only 6-7% of those that are reported result in a conviction. Thus, the risk of reconviction is very small.

As all the victims who contacted me have said, Worboys – who played a slightly pathetic and friendless character – persuaded them, against their better judgment, to have a drink in the back of his cab and celebrate his lottery win. Surely the Parole Board should have considered that someone who miraculously decided to accept his offending only nine months away from his first board review might similarly have been trying to pull the wool over their eyes?

What the Worboys case tells us, from the failures of the police right through to every other criminal justice agency that dealt with him, is that we have a long way to go before victims of sexual violence can get justice.

Harriet Wistrich is a director of the Centre for Women’s Justice

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