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17 February 2023

Parole changes – a solution in search of a problem

Sometimes it pays to ask the obvious question. Dominic Raab’s determination to stop lifers and IPP prisoners getting to open prisons started in February last year when a lifer absconded from North Sea Camp open prison, was arrested four days later and returned to a closed prison. There has never been any suggestion that the person in question committed any offence while unlawfully at large.

So we thought someone should ask how often any lifer or IPP prisoner who had absconded from an open prison had committed a serious further offence — or indeed any offence — while unlawfully at large.

Incredibly, the government doesn’t know and hasn’t thought it necessary to find out.

Everyone understands that the parole process is about assessing risk, and making a judgement about how it can be managed. The law makes it perfectly clear that decisions should err on the side of caution and they certainly do. But it cannot make sense to shut down a process — a period spent in open conditions — which helps both the assessment and the management of risk when there is no evidence that it has caused the harm that the change in policy is designed to prevent. Thousands of people serving life or the IPP sentence stand to be denied the opportunity to go to an open prison without any evidence that the risk that justifies that policy change has ever materialised.

In its Prisons Strategy White Paper the government set out five values that it said underpinned all of its policy. The last of them reads as follows:

“We seek out best practice and evidence of what works to inform all that we do.”

Ministry of Justice, Prisons Strategy White Paper

There’s good evidence from the MoJ itself that access to release on temporary licence leads to better resettlement outcomes, and an impressive track record of very low reconviction rates for lifers who progress to release via an open prison. But there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support the abandonment of that proven good practice.

It’s hard to see the point of proclaiming your values if you’re not prepared to stick to them.

Peter Dawson