Parole system must change before another tragic murder

Parole system must change before another tragic murder

by Liam Kerr
article from Friday 22, June, 2018

PUBLIC CONFIDENCE in the parole system across the UK has been shaken. In the wake of the John Worboys case – the jailed taxi driver who was released on parole earlier this year despite a history of rape and sexual attacks against women –  the UK Government has begun a major review of the System in England.

In Scotland, the latest figures from the Parole Board show that more than 1 in 4 “non-life” sentence prisoners are let out halfway, back into the community. Expressed as a figure, of the 413 such cases considered during 2016-17, the Board recommended 114 be released on parole. This included 34 violent criminals and 57 convicted of drug offences. 11 of those released were serving sentences of 10 years or over. 

The system is that prisoners given four years or more can get out halfway (every prisoner sentenced to under 4 years is automatically released halfway through their sentence, normally without any supervision) with the Parole Board invited to make a binding recommendation to Scottish Ministers whether the individual offender should be released on licence. If early release is not directed at the first review, then the Board will reconsider the offender's case at 12 month intervals until the offender reaches their Earliest Date of Liberation (the two-thirds point of their sentence).

The figures for ‘life’ prisoners (those convicted of murder or e.g. repeated rape)being released back into the communitybetween 2012-2017 is about 15 per cent: 254 out of 1652. 

Many prisoners are let out twice: in 2016-17, 43 extended sentence prisoners were released despite having been already released and recalled to custody for breach of their licence conditions, whilst 6 determinate (non-life) sentence prisoners were re-released after recall.

It is these who cause particular concern: 28-year-old Gary Howieson who was out on licence from prison, was convicted and given six years in early June, of an unprovoked knife attack in Lanarkshire. 

The there is killer James Wright, who was jailed for 20 years for the unprovoked murder of innocent father-of-three Craig McClelland in Paisley (pictured). Last summer, near his home in Paisley, Craig was stopped on the street by Wright, asking for a light. For no reason, Wright suddenly pulled a knife and stabbed Craig twice. 

Significantly, Wright was “unlawfully at large” for almost six months having broken a tagging order at the time of the murder. He had been released early from jail following a previous conviction for carrying a sharp implement and tagged under the Scottish Government’s “home detention” scheme. Within 11 days, he had broken the terms of his curfew by trying to tamper with his tag. 

Last summer, convicted killer Robbie McIntosh attacked a woman in Dundee with a dumbbell – just days after being released early from a previous conviction for murder. 

A few months before, in April, double rapist Fraser Summers who had been released early from prison, was put back in jail for the assault of a young woman. 

Sadly, I could go on.

Of course the rehabilitation of criminals is a vital part of the justice system. That is why we have parole and home detention. Of course criminals need to be reintegrated with their communities so we avoid the kind of revolving door that sees criminals returning to jail over and over again. But the balance in Scotland is wrong.

Since the coming into force of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 victims of certain violent and sexual offences have the right to opt in to the Victim Notification Scheme and are then entitled to be advised of the release, transfer, death, escape or absconding of a prisoner who has offended against them. Victims who opt in to the Scheme are advised of parole hearings and can make written representations. Parole Board members can go and speak with victims in advance of the hearing. Crucially, the victim does not have the right to attend the hearing itself, as they do in England or Canada.

And once the decision is made, which incidentally lacks , the victim has no right to challenge the decision. The only recourse victims currently have to challenge a Parole Board decision in Scotland is through Judicial Review which is not an easy task. 

In England, Justice Secretary David Gauke has ordered a review into the parole system following the Worboys case with a view to making it easier for members of the public to challenge decisions; a decision on whether to free an inmate would remain provisional for a set period, during which time applications could be lodged for the direction to be reconsidered and aims to remove a ban on parole boards releasing information about its decisions.

A restricted review of Scotland’s parole system is underway, but its scope is far too limited. So let’s open it up. The Scottish Parliament was set up to take on board the concerns of ordinary voters and respond to their concerns. This is the perfect opportunity to ensure that victims are placed at the centre of the system, and not treated as an after-thought. 

A mere three things would drastically improve the system: 

  1. Victims to be given automatic rights to attend parole hearings and speak if they want;
  2. Victims to have greater rights to appeal parole decisions; and
  3. Parole Boards to provide more information on why decisions to release prisoners are made. 

Changes must happen to Scotland’s parole system now, rather than wait for another high-profile case to expose its current failings. Last week I wrote to the Scottish Government, demanding action to restore public confidence and to stand up for victims, to bring Scotland into line with best international practice. 

There is growing concern about the SNP’s approach to justice, and the tone it sets for the rest of the justice system. There is a need for greater transparency and accountability in the way the Parole Board reaches decisions. These decisions are being made with little explanation as to why, nor are the views of victims being given enough weight in the process.

Rather than mopping up after injustice, it’s time we acted to prevent these cases from happening in the first place.

Liam Kerr is a Scottish Conservative & Unionist MSP for North East Scotland and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Justice.

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