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Legal aid now applies to Parole Board hearings for victim families and prisoners

12 Sep 2019 / justice Print

Legal aid now applies to all Parole Board hearings

The Parole Act 2019, providing for the independence of the Parole Board, was welcomed in the body’s annual report 2018 by chairman and solicitor John Costello, who is a former Law Society president.

The Parole Board is now solely responsible for making an order or refusing parole, rather than making recommendations to the minister of the day.

Conditions

The new board will make the final decision on whether to release a prisoner on parole. Parole orders can also now be subject to conditions and sentence-management recommendations.

The parole legislation reforms put the operation of the Parole Board on an independent, transparent and statutory footing.

The legislation initially will apply to life-sentenced prisoners who have served at least 12 years.

Both prisoners and victims’ family members can now use legal aid to be represented at parole hearings.

348 prisoners were serving life

The annual report shows that, in January this year, 348 prisoners were serving life sentences. Of these, 291 have served over five years in prison, and 111 have served over 15 years.

A total of 63 prisoners were referred to the Parole Board for review during 2018. The total caseload at the beginning of 2018 was 343.

Of 122 reviewed cases, recommendations were made to the minister in 111 cases. The minister accepted the recommendations in full in 92 cases, and accepted one case conditionally or in part.

Pending decisions

There were 18 decisions pending at the end of 2018.

In the past two years, 21 life-sentenced prisoners have been released, after rehabilitation work with psychologists, addiction counsellors and probation officers.

No prisoner is granted parole without a full psychological report, and the average time served for these prisoners varied between 18 and 22 years.

Life-sentence prisoners who are granted temporary release are regarded in law as still serving that sentence, and are liable to recall at any time.

Mental health

The annual report calls for an updated report on the mental health of prisoners.

Current Probation Service figures show that 89% of offenders under their supervision have an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.

A total of 122 prisoners were reviewed by the Parole Board during 2018. A total of seven long-sentence prisoners were recommended for reviewable temporary release.

The average time served in custody prior to release by a life-sentenced prisoner in 2018 was 17.5 years.

Public safety concerns

Two released prisoners were returned to custody during 2018, one at his own request in the context of possible public safety concerns, and the other following a charge of assault.

The report states that 63 prisoners were referred to the Parole Board during 2018, and 41 accepted an invitation to participate in the parole process. Four declined, and another 18 had not yet responded at the time of writing.

Three of the four who declined were serving determinate sentences, and 15 of the 18 non-responders were also serving determinate sentences.

Remission

These prisoners were automatically entitled to 25% remission.

During 2018, seven prisoners were recommended for reviewable temporary release, and 11 were sent to a less secure environment, while 20 were transferred to an open centre.

In all, 20 were allowed family visits at a neutral venue.

In January this year, one prisoner had served over 40 years, seven had served between 35-40 years, nine had served between 30-35 years, and another nine between 25-30 years.

Nineteen prisoners had served between 20-25 years, 66 had served between 15-20 years, 88 had served between five and ten years, 52 had served between one and five years, while five prisoners had served less than one year.

The numbers convicted for murder have increased steadily in recent years, from 17 in 2014, up to 19 in 2015, dropping back to 16 in 2016, rising to 20 in 2017, and 23 in 2018.

Sensitive area

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said: “The provision of advice to me on the management of long-term prisoners’ sentences is a very complex and sensitive area.

“The actions of those who come before the Parole Board for consideration have had catastrophic and long-lasting consequences for the victims of the offences concerned and their families. There are no easy decisions in these matters.”

He thanked John Costello and the members of the board for their “difficult and vital work”. Solicitor Shane McCarthy, who is current chair of the Law Society Human Rights Committee, is also a member of the Parole Board.

Caseload

A total of 63 prisoners were referred to the Parole Board for review during 2018. The total caseload of the board at the beginning of 2018 was 343.

This included a combination of new cases, and cases at second or subsequent review stage. During 2018, the board convened on 11 occasions and reviewed 122 cases. In respect of the cases reviewed, recommendations were made to the minister in 111 cases.

The minister accepted the recommendations in full in 92 cases, and accepted one case conditionally or in part. There were 18 decisions pending at the end of 2018.

Average time that life-sentenced prisoners spent in custody before release: 2001 to 2018

                Number released              Average (mean) years in custody

2001                       5                                              15

2002                       3                                              11

2003                       1                                              14

2004                       1                                              19.5

2005                       2                                              14.5

2006                       0                                               n/a

2007                       6                                               15.5

2008                       2                                               15.5

2009                       5                                               17.5

2010                       6                                               18.25

2011                       5                                                20

2012                       4                                                22

2013                       4                                                17.5

2014                       4                                                20

2015                       6                                                17.5

2016                       7                                                 22          

2017                      10                                                18

2018                      11                                                18

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