Parole Board Chief Executive's blog - June 2023
CEO Martin Jones outlines the Parole Board's stance on Recalls, why they happen and how they are managed
The Parole Board plays a vital role in protecting the public by assessing prisoners to decide whether their continued detention remains necessary for the protection of the public.
It is unsurprising that most of the public focus is on the cases where we decide that a prisoner is safe to be released. However, the data demonstrates that in nearly 75% of our cases we decide that a prisoner needs to be kept in custody for the protection of the public. Without having a parallel universe, it is of course impossible to know how many serious offences we prevent through these decisions; to keep prisoners in custody; because at the heart of our decision making is an uncertainty about what a prisoner would do if they were released into the community. There will of course be people that would not have reoffended. But I am also certain that the public is much safer because of our independent, evidence-based decisions, which ensure that prisoners deemed to be dangerous are lawfully kept in custody.
Even amongst those we release, in my experience, most public focus is on “classic” parole decisions; deciding whether to release somebody serving a life sentence for murder or another serious offence.
However, in the last year for which figures are available this is just 7%
74% of our decisions involved those who had been recalled to custody and that is an area worthy of focus
Is recall a failure of parole? Are there lessons to be learned from recall?
The majority of recall cases involve prisoners who were automatically released at the halfway point of their sentence as required by law, without consideration by the Parole Board, who are subsequently recalled because of concerns around their behaviour in the community. It is important to be clear that recall is a vital power for keeping the public safe. Sadly, some people who leave prison, for a variety of reasons may struggle in the community. Whilst the Probation Service works hard to support those individuals, if their risk escalates a recall to custody can be inevitable. Once a prisoner is recalled to custody it is important to gain a clear understanding of the risk that the offender may pose. Some prisoners who are lower risk may be subject to a fixed term recall of 14 or 28 days and then automatically re-released, this is an important discretion which I support. However, anybody subject to standard recall must be referred to the Parole Board.
The recall population has seen significant increases over recent years. From 5,113 in March of 2013, the population has more than doubled to 11,450 a decade later.
Some of this is the result of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014; some reflects the increase in the number of prisoners serving imprisonment for public protection sentences being released. The increase also reflects the wish to ensure the protection of the public.
But what is the Parole Board’s role when reviewing a recall case?
In many of the recall cases we review, the prisoner will never have been assessed by a parole panel before. Unlike a life sentence prisoner, less will be known about the recalled prisoner. They are much less likely to have committed a very serious, sexual, or violent offence. They may be a prolific offender with many previous convictions. A number are likely to have problems with addiction, In some cases there might be concerns around potential domestic abuse. When I speak with victims they often express concern that recall means that a serious further offence has been committed. Thankfully that is incredibly rare, however I see no reason not to provide them with reassurance where appropriate on the reasons for recall.
Although the characteristics of these cases are different, the test the Parole Board applies is exactly the same:
"The Parole Board must not give a direction [for release] … unless the Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined."
This can be a challenging task because we know from our wider work the risk factors which might lead to an offender reoffending and these factors sometimes live with those we review following recall. For many of those people, accommodation is a real issue, and we know that for a released prisoner, obtaining accommodation or a job may be a struggle in the community.
There is, however, one crucial difference between a recall case and a prisoner whose initial release is at the discretion of the Parole Board. As well as considering the statutory release test set by parliament, we are also obliged to consider the “appropriateness of recall”.
Can you judge appropriateness by the re-release rate?
Occasionally when an offender is recalled to custody there is a perception that the release itself must have been incorrect. I do not think that is the fair assessment. For many prisoners recall is more symptomatic of the struggles they face upon release. Our figures demonstrate that a significant proportion of those recalled to custody are judged suitable for re-release. Last year found that:
74% of recalled IPPs were released at Oral Hearing
72% of recalled lifers were released at Oral Hearing
This high re-release rate does not however necessarily mean that the recall itself was inappropriate. In many cases the decision to recall the offender was well founded, because there were signs that the prisoner’s risk might have increased. Breach of licence conditions (e.g. a relapse into substance misuse) is always a serious matter, because those conditions are intended to manage the risk and protect the public. However, when a panel understand what went wrong, and how such concerns can be mitigated, they may decide that the release test is still met.
Sometimes, when a panel reviews a case they discover that concerns about an offender’s behaviour at the point of recall prove to be unfounded when the full facts are known. That again does not make the decision itself inappropriate. I have every sympathy with Probation Officers managing complex cases and facing uncertainty about a prisoner’s behaviour or whereabouts and have no alternative but to recall; the fact that their fears may have been misplaced in some cases. A panel is unlikely to find that recall is inappropriate if the offender is recalled but subsequently acquitted of criminal charges, or charges are dropped. It is entirely understandable for a Probation Officer to recall somebody who has been arrested on suspicion of committing an offence. In many of those cases, the panel will still want to explore the circumstances that led to the arrest or charges, as they are potentially relevant to risk.
So, when is recall judged inappropriate?
In my experience, a panel will usually decide that a recall was inappropriate where the facts relied upon at the point of recall are not supported by the subsequent evidence; Reassuringly, that is incredibly rare.
However, it is important for confidence and ensuring fairness in the system, that a court – for these purposes the Parole Board - assess these matters to ensure the correct processes are followed.