Martin Jones: The Parole Board and Lawyers make a perfect fit
BCKR recently welcomed Martin Jones to host a Breakfast Event. Martin has been Chief Executive of The Parole Board for nearly five years and has worked in the justice system for 27 years. His current role has been the most challenging and also the most rewarding. Members can access the presentation Martin gave here.
What does the Parole Board do?
It is similar to a court – a body that, independent of the Government, makes decisions regarding whether to order the release of prisoners; it also conditions under which such a release should be made.
There are around 270 members of the Parole Board, making these decisions. Last year the Parole Board released 3,600 people but also decided a further 10,000 needed to remain in prison for the protection of the public. The Board has a 99% success rate; success is defined as the number of people released who go on to commit a serious offence thereafter ( they don’t, for example, count someone who has spent 30 years in prison, who is then released but is caught shoplifting. Their sole focus in law is the risk to public.
Looking back to when the Parole Board was created in 1967, it had just 17 members and was purely an advisory body – advising the Home Secretary who made the final decision. Leaving the final release decision to politicians, who might be influenced by other factors than solely risk, was not ideal. That is why the Home Secretary’s powers over release have been gradually taken away and now the decisions rest solely within the justice system.
Fifty years ago, there were no parole hearings at all and decisions were made based on a paper-based review. About 25 years ago the courts decided that in the interest of fairness, the prisoners should be entitled to a court hearing to decide their suitability for release. The number of hearings this year is at an all-time high – 8400 hearings, a 590% increase to 15 years ago.
Why does the Parole Board matter?
These are independent decisions based on risk and on evidence. The Board considers the evidence and makes the decision based on fairness and the evidence; decisions are not influenced by whether or not someone is going to like/dislike the decision.
It is also about ensuring that we only lawfully keep in prison those that pose significant risk to the public. If necessary, that means some will be in prison for the rest of their lives, and the Board doesn’t shirk from that. But it is also about providing hope for those who reform and change, and who can show there is a low risk of reoffending.
Ultimately it is about understanding and reducing risk, as well as managing risk when someone is released back into their community. That is where licensing can be very powerful. At any one time there are about 1000 people currently on license in the community – with tags on their ankles to track their location. This acts as a deterrent, but also is a reassurance to victims. Exclusion zones can be set and there can also be residence and other conditions, setting limits around where they can live, who they can’t contact i.e. victims or people you originally committed the offence with.
What the Parole Board does
Last year 64,000 people were released from prison. Of these, under 3,000 were released by the Parole Board. 95% are automatically released by virtue of the law with only the more serious offenders being referred to the parole board. Contrary to popular belief, the Parole Board are not there just to’ let people out’…. the parole system provides a lawful way of keeping people in prison if they are considered to be a continued risk to the public.
Who joins the Parole Board?
As a public body it is important that it reflects the community it serves – diversity is ever more important. However, the types of people that generally sit on the boards are from the following backgrounds:
- Judges or magistrates
- People from a legal background
- Psychologists and Psychiatrists
- Justice system background
- Probation experience or
- Retired prison governors
There is usually a panel of 3 people, sitting in the prison, with the prisoner on the other side of the table, hearing from the probation officers, prison staff, psychologists and others about what has happened to that prisoner since they’ve been in prison. Getting an understanding of the way their risk has changed and what their behaviour is like since being in custody.
One major issue is keeping up with the case load. When Martin arrived at the Parole Board in 2015 there was typically a 15 months wait for a hearing, so many of these prisoners would be considered safe to be released but were being kept in prison merely because of the inability of the system to cope. – and as a result the Parole Board was paying out about £1million per year in prisoner compensation claims.
Increasing transparency has been a major issue since 2018. Until the law was changed in 2018, a victim could be refused release without any explanation as to why. The law then changed to allow the Parole Board to provide summaries of the decision-making process to the victims. The prisoner also gets a separate report detailing why a decision has been made. If it is felt that the decision is unfair the new system allows for the decision to be reconsidered. So far there have been 130 applications and 17 have those have been successful. In the majority of cases it is the prisoner asking for reconsideration – not the victims. All these decisions are now being published.
Victims – What are they entitled to?
- Updates on prisoners progress in custody
- Can summit a victim personal statement about the impact the offence has had on their life and can read it at the parole hearing if they wish. Very important that the board is not influenced at all by representations made by the victims. The decision is made based on the evidence.
- To be made aware of license decisions, where the prisoner will reside
- They can write to the Secretary of State for reconsideration
- Notification of a prisoner’s release
The healing process of the victim is very difficult, and the Parole Board is sensitive to that. They do take into account non-contact and inclusion zones. They have been working with the charity Why Me about the value of restorative justice. Sometimes this kind of intervention can be the thing that triggers a prisoner to reform.
The Board also deals with about 20-30 terrorism cases each year. For these cases there are is a small group of members cleared at the high security levels to deal with those cases including those high in the judiciary. There is specialised training to members regarding the specific aspects of risk which are rather different for radicalised prisoners . Psychological evidence becomes much more important and you need to ask a different set of questions around that.
What insights does it give you into the prison system generally?
Prison conditions are very difficult at times. The levels of prison staffing has directly impacted on the levels of violence in prisons. Being in prison is also damaging to your health.
What is the criteria for risk?
There is a statutory risk test. They have to be satisfied that the prisoner is no longer going to be a risk to the public. You have to go with weighted evidence. Closer to the civil burden than the reasonable doubt.
What is the process and timescale?
A case will be referred to the Parole Board automatically by the Secretary of State for Justice when the minimum term expires, and the prisoner becomes eligible for parole. He will disclose a body of papers including all relevant reports to a single member of the board who will do a triage assessment of the case. They are essentially looking for 3 things:
- Is it possible to release the prisoner based on the papers? That’s quite unusual.
- Have you got all the information you need – are there any gaps?
- Do you turn down the prisoner based on the papers? For example did they assault a prisoner officer three weeks ago … thereby rendering a parole hearing pointless?
Once the Members are satisfied they have enough background, the case can be directed to a parole hearing. Normally it takes about six months from initial referral to the oral hearing.
After the hearing the Chairman will write a report and 14 days later a decision will be given.
There will be anywhere between 1 and 3 members sitting on a panel, depending on the seriousness of the case.
What makes a good member?
It is essentially the ability to assess information (which can be up to 1000 pages of evidence) and taking on board that evidence to conduct an effective independent assessment and being quite laser-like to reach the ten or so questions that need to be asked to make a sound decision. Ultimately we need people who can make decisions. In the past criminal justice experience was generally required but that is not the case anymore. A lot of the panel chairs are senior people from varied backgrounds –including numerous Lawyers– who have the ability to assimilate the evidence and have a commitment to fairness, putting aside any personal prejudices (for instance, regarding sex offenders – indeed about 40% of the work relates to sex offenders).
Do you fit members to the attributes of a particular case?
- Yes – if there are mental health issues they would look to appoint a psychologist to the review. Typically a psychiatrist would be deployed in terrorism cases, etc.
- In some instances the complexity of the case might require having a judge or lawyer to be on the panel.
What is the selection process?
It is quite a popular job. The Board recently had 1200 applications for 100 jobs. There are regular 12 week rolling recruitment campaigns. You can write to the Parole Board and express an interest so that when the next competition opens you can ‘throw your hat into the ring’.
Candidates, via their CVs, need to be able to demonstrate, against a set of examples, that they have gained the requisite set of skills.
The CVs are sifted and then the process goes straight to interview. During the last process, they conducted about 150 interviews and there was a 70% success rate in securing the required number of appointments. The time commitment is about 100 days per year. Members are paid on a daily rate and can earn around £40,000-£50,000 p.a.
A residential training course and process is provided, which includes:
- Legal training
- The identification of a mentor
- Training on effective questioning – for example how do you question vulnerable prisoners who feel unable to speak for themselves?
- Sitting as a co-panellist
- After 3 months experience, sitting on your own. Then after a year it is possible to progress to becoming a panel Chair.
Is there a postcode lottery with regards to availability of services in the community upon release?
Ultimately the burden falls to the local authority. The Parole Board’s role is solely to make a decision based on risk, which is not based on the availability of services.
Is there an appraisal process?
Yes, members are subject to appraisal. This covers the decisions made, it entails practical observations, reviews any complaints made etc.