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04 November 2022

Blog: Parole reforms locking people out of rehabilitation

The slow drip feed of hard information from the Ministry of Justice about the impact of changes to the parole system continues.

In this blog, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, examines what these latest numbers tell us.

A recent parliamentary question by Baroness Prashar has uncovered further information about the impact of the government’s parole reforms.

People who are progressing really well in their life sentence can request what is known as a pre-tariff review. This is a hearing by the Parole Board, held three years before a person’s earliest possible release date—their tariff expiry. If successful, they are allowed to move to a lower security ‘open prison’.

In a sensible world, everyone would be entitled to such a review without asking, and PRT has called for reviews to happen even earlier in the life sentence. That would mean that people could be completely clear about what they needed to do to stand the best chance of being released at the moment the authority to detain purely as punishment comes to an end.

But as things currently stand, the pre-tariff review procedure is all the system offers. The prison’s Governor must first support the request for the review before it is considered by the Ministry of Justice. Officials in the ministry must then endorse that support before the Parole Board can get involved. In practice, that means requests are initially considered (and can be refused) on the basis of very brief reports. These are considerably less detailed and informative than the subsequent dossier of information that is prepared if the review is eventually sent for consideration by a Parole Board panel.

Getting a pre-tariff review has never been easy. But what does this new information reveal?

It tells us that in the 12 months before the criteria for transfer to open conditions changed on 6 June, 133 applications for review were referred to the Parole Board by the ministry, and 113 were not.

So that’s a success rate prior to 6 June of around 54% in terms of at least getting your case considered with a full dossier and independently of the ministry.

Since 6 June, 9 requests have been referred to the Parole Board and 65 have been blocked, a success rate of just 12%.

It beggars belief that ministers are so determined to keep lifers out of open prisons. Doing so forces the Parole Board to see cases for the very first time following their tariff expiry date, keeping people stuck in a closed prison without any of the benefits that an open prison provides to prepare someone for release. Nowadays the system has generally had at least a couple of decades to prepare for someone getting released and to test out all the anxieties it might have about allowing that. It’s surely not too much to expect that getting someone safely released once they have served their minimum term—or tariff expiry—should be what that system is aiming for.

The failure to get organised in pursuit of that aim—and now to adopt policies that actively frustrate it—will have very practical consequences for ministers at a time when they are running out of both prison places and the staff they need to run them. But it will also have devastating consequences for the people who are denied the chance even to put their case to the Parole Board—typically people who have done everything asked of them over many years spent in prison. This isn’t simply an immoral policy. It’s an irrational one.

Peter Dawson