At this groundbreaking event, chaired by prison law solicitor Michael Purdon, an audience of prison lawyers and Parole Board members engaged in a frank, and at times feisty, exchange of views on what is wrong with the prison and parole system in this country.
Sir David Latham, the chairman of the Parole Board, in response to a question submitted by a prisoner, acknowledged that the backlog of Parole Board hearings and the lengthy delays that have built up is a scandal.
Sir David, who has been in post as head of the Parole Board for around six months, inherited a situation where there were not the resources to deal with an explosion of cases demanding an oral hearing, including a mountain of IPP applications competing for judge time with life sentence cases.
Sir David outlined some of his strategies to beat this problem.
He is recruiting more judges to the Parole Board and “no hope” cases will be dealt with on paper without an oral hearing.
However, the scale of the problem is such that Sir Neil Butterfield, vice chairman of the Parole Board and a High Court judge, warned that the scandalous situation will continue for some time.
There was an informative exchange of views on why the Parole Board and the Secretary of State place more reliance on prison psychology reports over independent psychology reports.
Sir Neil Butterfield, who sits regularly on lifer panels, confirmed that in his experience parole panels do place more reliance on prison psychology reports although panels do not always accept recommendations from prison psychologists.
Some thought that this situation arises because of the unrealistic recommendations in some independent reports and the aversion to risk that infects the criminal justice system.
The panel were asked why risk assessment was so often carried out by a trainee rather than a fully qualified chartered psychologist.
Ruth Mann from NOMS said there was a national shortage of chartered psychologists but pointed out that trainees ranged from the very new to those who had been training for several years.
Some speakers thought that supervision of trainee psychologists was very poor in some cases and that the quality of reports by trainees was not good enough.
Don Grubin, a Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, who is conducting a trial of polygraph testing of sex offenders on parole, described polygraphs as tremendously useful in enabling a better understanding of risk but thought that they needed to be seen as part of a package.
Other speakers expressed concern about polygraphs falling into the wrong hands and failing to incorporate necessary protections.
The role of probation hostels was debated. Russell A’Court, Head of the Public Protection Casework Unit, explained that probation hostels were not intended to be long term solutions but provided a means of progressing to independent living and served that purpose very well.
Phillippa Kaufmann, a barrister from Doughty Street Chambers, noted that for most lifers, probation hostels were now the only way out.
Solicitor Simon Creighton pointed out that many prisoners saw probation hostels as toxic places and exactly the type of atmosphere that they do not want to be in.
Many speakers expressed concerns over offending behaviour programmes and whether they work to reduce risk.
Jackie Craissati, a psychologist from the Bracton Centre, expressed concern about the zero tolerance approach to failure which leads to the catastrophic consequences of a mistake in open conditions but has no regard for the fact that people do learn from mistakes and lapses.
It was thought that it is a problem that people are not looking for alternative ways to offending behaviour programmes of reducing risk.
Robert Forde, an independent forensic psychologist, said that the quality of research into this problem was very poor and making release contingent on doing programmes to reduce risk when there was no evidence of the effectiveness of those programmes was indefensible.