As 2016 drew to a close, a forward-looking event took place in Manchester. Nick Hardwick, the Chairman of the Parole Board, joined a panel of speakers for Great Expectations - Parole in 2016 and Beyond, an event reflecting on the parole system and the future of the Parole Board as it approaches its fiftieth anniversary.
The event was attended by lawyers, psychologists, former prisoners, prison staff and senior management from the Parole Board. We received several letters, in advance of the event, from serving prisoners. Their comments were included with the other conference papers.
Due to space constraints, this piece focuses only on the Parole Board’s contribution to the event.
Nick Hardwick spoke about his concerns about the number of IPP prisoners who remained in the system. His desire is to see the number of IPPs in prison to come down to 2,000 or less by the end of 2017.
He identified that the revolving door of recalls was also a serious problem, the number of recalls having increased by 17% since 2014. He acknowledged that the lack of resources available to the Probation Service was resulting in a significant number of avoidable recalls, often made during weekends or periods when the officer with direct knowledge of the case, was not around.
He explained that he had expressed his concerns about the plight of IPP prisoners to the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, and had given her several options to consider.
It is worth setting these out clearly:
CONVERSION: Convert all or some IPP sentences to a fixed term sentence with a definite sentence end date.
SUNSET CLAUSE: Establish a provision to provide that all or some post tariff prisoners must be released no later than a certain date.
RISK TEST: Reverse the risk test for some or all IPPs so the Parole Board has to demonstrate the prisoners poses a serious risk rather than the prisoners needing to demonstrate that they do not.
EXECUTIVE RELEASE: Consider using existing powers to release IPP prisoners who have now served more than the current maximum tariff for their sentence.
SHORT TARIFF IPPs: Reverse the risk test for IPPs with an original tariff of less than two years.
RECALLS: End the IPP sentence once the Parole Board has decided release and deal with further offences under normal sentencing provisions and limit license periods.
The key point here is that there is not a great deal that Nick Hardwick can do for IPP prisoners other than to continue to try to use his influence.
He cannot force Parole Board members to release IPP prisoners. They are legally and constitutionally obliged to make independent decisions, applying the existing release test for IPPs.
The only person at the moment who can do anything significant to change the landscape for IPP prisoners is Liz Truss. She has showed no sign that she has any desire to do anything at all. At the moment, there is no alternative to prisoners and their legal representatives continuing to work on their cases and trying to persuade the Parole Board to release them.
Hardwick’s view is that a lot needs to change including the attitudes of those with an active role in the system - the decision makers and the risk assessors.
He committed the Board to a detailed analysis of how Parole Board members actually reach their decisions and pointed out that this kind of analysis had not taken place for over 16 years.
He and his colleague, Faith Geary, explained their efforts to develop a more effective and electronic means of working including Parole Board panels working with tablets and making wider use of video and tele-conference based hearings to assist with the persistent backlog of Parole Board hearings.
A number of people expressed their reservations about the growing use of virtual technology which they felt had a negative impact on the quality of evidence. Concern was voiced also that it was leading to a presumption amongst Offender Managers that they no longer needed to visit prisons and have face-to-face meetings.
Hardwick’s response was pragmatic. He was confident that prisoners would rather have an earlier hearing date than to experience delays waiting for a fully ‘live’ hearing. He explained that prisoners and their representatives could put forward representations explaining why a video/ telephone hearing was not suitable.
Hardwick acknowledged that key players in the parole process needed to take it more seriously and that the Board needed to act more like a Court. He wanted Parole Board members to be more robust when faced with reluctant witnesses or when people did not comply with directions.
Most of those present were encouraged by what Hardwick and Geary said during the event. Many, however, are long enough in the tooth to know that there is an important gap between aspirational words and effective action.
2017 is an important year in more ways than one for the Parole Board.