Government cuts bring the Parole Board ‘close to crisis’ was the headline article of last month’s Inside Time. It was entirely accurate, as many prisoners awaiting long overdue Parole Hearings will confirm.
Within the last couple of weeks, the Parole Board have issued letters to hundreds of prisoners telling them their hearing are likely to be delayed owing to the fall-out of the Supreme Court ruling in Osborne and Booth.
Inside Time has also reported extensively on the cuts to legal aid for prisoners which came into effect on December 2, 2013 and the impact that these are likely to have on Parole Reviews.
This piece will offer some practical advice for prisoners to manage these changes so they can improve their chances of being treated fairly.
The Supreme Court is the highest Court in the UK. In October, they issued a judgment which concluded that the Parole Board should hold an oral hearing before deciding an application for release, or for a transfer to open conditions, whenever fairness to the prisoner requires such a hearing in the light of the facts of the case and the importance of what is at stake.
This was an important decision for prisoners who need a Parole Review of any kind, as it allows many a better chance of making progress or being released.
It recognises that a hearing at which a prisoner can speak and can challenge things which have been written about them is often much fairer than a decision on paper reports alone.
The challenge for prisoners is to make the best of their oral hearing and chance for progression or release.
Cuts to Legal Aid mean that there will be fewer qualified prison lawyers available and certainly fewer with experience as an advocate before the Parole Board.
Legal Aid is still available for all parole proceedings (subject to financial eligibility) except for pre-tariff indeterminate sentenced prisoners.
If you are facing a Parole Review, you need to do all you can to prepare for it. This is especially true if you cannot find a good experienced lawyer or do not qualify for legal aid.
Your freedom depends on you doing all you reasonably can to get yourself a fair Parole Board Review.
Below are ten things you can do to help yourself:
Know your dates within the 26 week ‘Generic Parole Process’. Know when your reports are due, when Intensive Case Management Representations are due and when Addendum reports before the hearing are due. Chase up overdue reports via your Offender Supervisor (OS).
Instruct a solicitor early, and tell them what you can about your case in a detailed letter and provide your previous Parole Board decision or dossier in the post. They can then come to see you having read those documents in advance. Your time with the lawyer can then focus on planning for your future rather than rehashing the past.
Read your dossier carefully and early make clear legible notes and send them to your lawyer. Highlight any errors and consider what additional documents would help such as such as homework from courses and diary work. You can ask to add any documents you want to the dossier. You should know your dossier inside out.
Consider who you want to attend your hearing. You are entitled to have observers such as a family member, mentor or tutor. You can ask for additional witnesses who know you well and who can comment on issues related to your risk areas.
Think about if you have any disabilities needing special assistance at the hearing. If you know that you have a disability it is important that this is made clear to the Parole Board. If you take medication which makes you drowsy or you struggle to concentrate, this needs to be pointed out. You can request that accommodations are made for your disability at the oral hearing.
Make Representations to the Parole Board at the Intensive Case Management (ICM) Stage. This will occur at approximately 14 weeks into the Generic Parole Process. Tell the Parole Board in the Representations what witnesses you want, if there are any relevant reports missing and if you are happy to be on videolink. You do not need to have decided what your application to the Parole Board is at this stage. This is primarily an opportunity to address whether you want an oral hearing and to advise what witnesses and evidence you want at the hearing.
When ICM Directions are issued, READ THEM CAREFULLY. You can often get a flavour of the Parole Board’s concerns about the risk issues in your case. This will allow you to prepare for your oral hearing with those issues in the forefront of your mind.
Re-read the Sentencing Judge’s remarks which are in the Dossier. This is often where the Parole Board turn first. Think about what has changed in you since the Judge made those comments at your sentencing hearing. What have you learned on courses, what do you understand about your ‘risk factors’, what are the challenges for you in the future and how will you deal with them? Think of specific examples of how you have dealt successfully with stressful or diffi cult situations during your sentence. Write examples down and discuss them with your OS and Offender Manager (OM).
Decide what application you are making to the Parole Board. If the application is for open conditions, then write to various open prisons, learn what the regimes are, and anticipate what might be risky situations for you in open conditions. If your application is for release then think carefully about your release plans and what you need to do to improve them.
Stay in touch with your OM as much as you can. It can make a huge difference if you can establish a good relationship with them.