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What is Parole?

Date: (23 September 2011)    |    

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Duncan Lewis:P who specialise in parole work will represent prisoners at Parole Board hearings.

The Parole Board is the body that always makes decisions when it comes to releasing prisoners who are serving life sentences, or those who have indeterminate sentences such as prisoners who have been incarcerated in the interests of protecting the public. Fixed-term or ‘determinate’ prisoners are automatically released halfway into the sentence they were handed down, according to the CJIA (Criminal Justice and Immigration Act) of 2008. Some prisoners who were sentenced to fixed terms before the act came into force will have their release dates decided by the Parole Board.

The Parole Board was formed in 1967 with the object of advising the Home Secretary on prisoner release and recall. Since then, the management of offenders has come under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, and the Parole Board has metamorphosed into first an advisory body which had no say in final decisions over release dates, and then into a judicial body which has the power to decide the lengths of the sentences of large numbers of prisoners.

The Parole Board is, in large part, concerned with arranging and overseeing oral hearings. At these hearings, prisoners are present and also represented by crime solicitors and other legal functionaries. Sometimes, however, one member of the Parole Board may make decisions ‘on the papers’, i.e. without a hearing and based on other input from the Prison Service and related bodies.

Most members of the Parole Board are part-time and are professionals in various disciplines, such as probation officers, psychologists and psychiatrists. There are also lay members who are independent. The Parole Board is an example of an executive NDPB (Non-Departmental Public Body), getting funding through the Ministry of Justice in this case but operating entirely independent of it. However, the Secretary of State for Justice can issue guidance, and he or she also appoints the Parole Board’s members.

Parole has become something of a human rights issue because of its relation to prisoners who have been handed down an ‘indeterminate sentence’. These prisoners will often have been sentenced according to the Dangerous Offenders Act of 2003 and the IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) provisions of the act have been used increasingly to pass such sentences. The upshot is that the Parole Board is in the position of determining whether such prisoners can be released or must continue to be kept locked up, and this has caused some conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights Article 5.