In June, Inside Time featured a letter from the Parole Board Chairman seeking views from prisoners on the Parole Board’s plans for change. The Parole Board has been consulting very widely on these plans, including speaking to legal representatives for prisoners.
The ideas which are being considered include:
Being clearer about the purpose of the oral hearing for each case and the issues which are likely to be relevant at a much earlier stage.
One Parole Board member "owning" the case from the start of a review and, as far as possible, remaining with it until it is finished.
Looking into ways of making other organisations more accountable for causing hearings to be delayed.
Finding ways of reducing the time a hearing takes without putting the quality of hearings at risk.
Providing shorter decision letters which are easier to understand.
Reducing the number of members on oral hearing panels for lifers/IPP prisoners in some cases from three members to two.
Questionnaires were made available in prison libraries and were also sent to prisoner subscribers to the Prisoners’ Advice Service’s quarterly bulletin.
The quality of responses was impressive and has provided very useful information for the Parole Board to think about.
On the whole, there was little opposition to the proposals with one notable exception.
A majority of those who responded expressed concern about the idea of shortening hearings. They were worried about valuable information being missed and wrong or unfair decisions being made if hearings became rushed.
A large majority (over 70%) of those who responded thought that the current hearing length was about right.
Several of those who replied felt that there was potential for reducing the length of hearings if cases were properly prepared in advance. They felt this could happen if accurate information was provided on time. Some felt time could be saved by asking for more information before the hearing itself.
Many favoured panels being clearer about what was disputed and what needed to be explored at an oral hearing. They thought that if everyone was in agreement there was no need for a long, drawn-out hearing.
Understandably, most were more interested in hearings being fair than being any shorter.
The questionnaire asked how many members were needed for a fair and thorough oral hearing.
A slight majority favoured three members although there were a significant number who felt that two would be enough. A small number opted for one member.
One respondent made a link between the number of members and the length of the hearing: "At present having 3 members asking the same questions in different ways makes hearings too long. I feel a good judgement can be attained with 2 experienced members, especially for lifer hearings".
An overwhelming majority (over 80%) agreed that more work should be done to try to identify the issues which were important and relevant before an oral hearing began.
Some took the opportunity to flag problems with the system which are outside of the control of the Parole Board such as long waiting times for offending behaviour work.
Several mentioned problems with evidence from Offender Managers, ranging from lack of personal knowledge about an individual case to failures to provide accurate and necessary information in reports and to deliver them on time.
Many felt that cases being prepared earlier and prisoners or their representatives having an opportunity to identify errors in reports before a hearing would be beneficial.
Practical suggestions put forward included witnesses being given more specific instructions by the Parole Board about what they expected to be included in reports and guidance to prisoners to complete representations.
Some respondents voiced concern that Parole Board panels placed too much reliance on offending behaviour programmes and not enough attention to alternatives, especially for prisoners who were maintaining their innocence.
Some felt that there should be less emphasis on psychology and statistical assessments and more on practical issues and individual assessments of character.
Many wanted to see more weight given to evidence from people with whom they had regular, day-to-day contact and knew them well.
Others expressed a desire for panels to hear from family members and future employers (captured by one respondent as ‘those with a significant stake in the outcome’).
The results of this survey indicate that there is not a major problem with the content of Parole Board decision letters.
An overwhelming majority (over 70%) said that they were easy enough to understand. Around 20% felt that decision letters were too long; some commented that there was too much unnecessary historical information and this could be cut down.
"One of the worse parts of the procedure is the wait for news and for the hearing to start. Delays and deferrals are distressing and in my opinion the preliminary processes are too lax. It would seem those responsible for ensuring all reports are ready and meet the instructions set out are failing in their duties. There is also an issue of report writers or witnesses going beyond the requests made of them or changing those requests to fit their desires."
A large number of parole hearings do not go ahead on the date they are arranged.
The questionnaire asked for views as to the reasons for this and what could be done:
There are interesting similarities between the perception and the reality. The Parole Board’s own recent analysis of deferrals over a four month period shows a figure of 44% due to problems with reports. The lack of accountability for causing deferrals was a very strong theme amongst respondents.
There were a number of references to a lack of respect for the process and that those responsible were ‘allowed to get away with it’.
Several mentioned that they thought sanctions would be necessary to change this. A number stated that the Parole Board needed to be more robust and to challenge those who were able to delay prisoners’ hearings without any repercussions.
The survey highlighted the need for vigilance concerning the impact of legal aid cuts and attention to the needs of unrepresented prisoners.
A majority (over 60%) of respondents referred to the negative impact of legal aid cuts: whilst they remain able to communicate with their representatives, they received less visits and some flagged that it was more difficult to get solicitors to chase reports or dates for hearings.
Concerns were raised about restrictions on the length of telephone calls to lawyers and the prohibitive cost and felt that the reduction in visits should be compensated by increasing opportunities for phone consultations and/or legal calls being available at a cheaper rate.
There were a few respondents who were now unable to access legal help at all, in particular, for pre-tariff hearings for which legal aid is no longer available. They pointed out that this led to unfairness, an inequality of arms and added time to parole hearings.
Oral Hearings and The ‘F’ Word
The final question in the survey was an open invitation for any other comments or concerns about the proposals.
On the whole, prisoners do not appear unduly concerned about the proposals and were broadly supportive of them.
Many mentioned obstacles to change, noting that efficiencies would require changes in prison and probation practice and that staffing and resource issues needed to be resolved to make the proposals work.
The strongest theme was a desire for fairness and a meaningful hearing, both of which were at the core of the Osborn Booth and Reilly case:
"…if someone is likely to have another 2½ yrs added to their sentence, then it is right that they should always have the right to have their sentence/recommendations held to account, in person by an independent body, who are able to hold the professionals dealing with their progression, to account ….It is easy to write a risk averse report, it is harder to justify it in person. When a prisoner has difficulty dealing with written docs it is even more important in the interest of fairness & justice that they are able to be heard in person."
The Parole Board will continue, over the coming weeks, to analyse all the information it has received from consultations and pilots and will consider the results of this survey carefully.
An update will be provided in the next edition of Inside Time.
Thank you to all who took the time to complete and return the questionnaires.