Assessing the risk posed by offenders is difficult. Parole Board members rely on the Ministry of Justice, HM Prison Service and the probation service to provide the necessary information for them to make an informed decision. Determinate sentenced prisoners, though, are having their hearings on time and the Board is reducing the backlog of cases where offenders are recalled while on parole. But with a 31 per cent increase in the Board’s workload between 2005-06 and 2006-07 only a third of hearings for life sentence cases are being held on time. Two thirds of oral hearings for those serving life sentences have been deferred at least once.
The assessment of the risk of harm posed by offenders can be undermined by the absence of important documents. In 97 of 276 cases reviewed by the National Audit Office, involving offenders serving a life sentence an Offender Assessment System report or a Life Sentence Plan was not included. These documents are produced by prison and probation staff to assess and record the risks posed by offenders.
The release rates arising from the Board’s decisions for offenders serving a life sentence fell from 23 per cent in 2005-06 to 15 per cent in 2006-07 and for other offenders from 50 per cent to 36 per cent. We identified no change in policy or procedures to explain these decreases. The proportion of offenders released early who were recalled for committing a further offence remained stable at 6 per cent over the same period, suggesting that patterns of reconvictions have remained broadly constant and that standards of risk assessment by the Board are being maintained when identifying those offenders ready for release into the community.
Deferrals can lead to prisoners spending longer in custody than necessary, which places additional pressure on an already stretched prison system. It also leaves the Board open to judicial review or compensation claims. The NAO review found that the additional time prisoners spend in custody because of deferred hearings and other administrative delays cost the taxpayer £3 million between September 2006 and June 2007.
The NAO looked at the recruitment and training of members. The current members like their initial training and appreciate mentoring from more experienced members. The appraisal of members is also well liked. While the membership of the Board is gender balanced, members tend to be older than the population average and only four of 180 members say they are non-white. The Ministry of Justice has been working to recruit a more diverse membership.