My attention has been drawn to the annual report of the Parole Board and by any measure it seems to be good news. Following a significant increase in Board members last year, the number of Oral Hearings has increased significantly and at last some real progress is being achieved in reducing the backlog, especially in IPP cases. Interestingly, the release rate for lifers has increased from 11% to 15% and for IPP cases from 5% to 6%.
Of course decisions regarding whether to release a prisoner or not are determined by making a judgement call based on an assessment of risk. I have written previously about the fact that the Parole Board has become increasingly risk-averse in recent time and the possible reasons for this. One area of concern has been connected to the introduction of OASys, the Offender Assessment System that was foisted upon the Probation Service during the forced marriage with the Prison Service under NOMS. Because of it's design, there is evidence to suggest that it has resulted in an increase in the number of negative recommendations to the Parole Board by Probation Officers.
Assessing risk has and never will be an exact science and regular readers will be aware of my contempt for OASys and it's ability to inform decision-making in this area - precisely the reason it was introduced I might add. I notice that it does not get a mention in the Parole Board annual report which I think speaks volumes in itself. Something has changed though as the release rate has improved. Possibly the Parole Board are getting more adept at casting a rather more sceptical eye over the often misleading, confusing and contradictory OASys assessments?
In discussing this whole subject it's interesting to hear a viewpoint from the 'other' side as it were. I notice that John Hirst on his very well-read blog jailhouselawyerblog advocates the abolition of the Parole Board and pours scorn on the whole notion of assessing risk at all:-
"Instead of hiding behind hazy concepts such as public protection and risk assessment, surely a better system would be where a judge hands down a sentence, that is, time for the crime, and when the prisoner serves his time he is simply released?
Basically, in making a risk assessment, the Parole Board, in effect, gazes into a crystal ball and makes a prediction for future offending and passes down a sentence for a crime which has not yet been committed. This not only gives the Parole Board too much power, it is an abuse of power which leads to an injustice for the prisoner."
It's an interesting concept, but one I would not subscribe to. In this country, following abolition of the death penalty, we have adopted the use of indeterminate sentences for the most serious offences. We do not have the farce of 'determinate' sentences of say 99 years common in the United States. The key to both approaches though is the separation of an appropriate period of custody in relation to punishment, from the opportunity of release for either good behaviour or a reduction in risk. This seems humane and appropriate to the alternative of many more prisoners languishing in custody with no hope of ever being released.
But it all comes back to the assessment of risk. John distills the issue succinctly:-
"Basically, in making a risk assessment, the Parole Board, in effect, gazes into a crystal ball and makes a prediction for future offending and passes down a sentence for a crime which has not yet been committed."
But what's the alternative? It is possible for a sentencing Judge to impose a 'whole life' tariff in respect of the most heinous crimes, but it's quite rare. I believe there are only about 50 such cases in total. So in respect of all other serious offences of murder, manslaughter, rape, arson etc are we really going to arrive at an appropriate determinate sentence that reflects the seriousness of the offence and just leave to chance the possibility of repitition upon automatic release? We all know re-offending rates are too high as it is in relation to prisoners being released generally. Would it really be sensible for any society to move towards the universal doctrine of 'do the crime : do the time' whatever that crime and merely hope for the best? I don't think so.