An overhaul of England’s parole system will give victims the right to challenge the release of offenders, as part of a drive for increased transparency following a number of high-profile controversies.
The announcement comes as Justice Secretary David Gauke launches a government review to decide whether the way the Parole Board operates needs “fundamental” reform, and follows a public outcry last year when so-called black cab rapist John Worboys was deemed safe for early release.
The ruling was later overturned by the High Court, but the furore led to the resignation of Parole Board chairman Nick Hardwick, and prompted serious debate about whether the system was fit for purpose.
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Currently, the 246 members of the board decide whether a prisoner can be safely released or moved to an open jail in three-person panels which deal with about 25,000 cases a year. About 80% of risk assessments decisions are made by reviewing case papers, rather than at an oral hearing.
The review process has been criticised for being opaque, although a rule banning the board from disclosing the reasons behind its decisions was scrapped following a campaign by The Sun last March.
From the summer, victims will be given the right to challenge the release of violent offenders.
Under existing rules the public has no legal right to challenge the board, while judicial reviews can be both costly and time-consuming. In a move to expedite decisions, cut costs and boost transparency, victims will be able to trigger a fresh hearing for free by applying to the Justice Secretary within 21 days of the Parole Board decision.
Yet the changes have faced criticism from victims groups after it was announced convicts will also be given new rights to challenge parole board decisions.
The Daily Telegraph estimates that prisoners “may seek to challenge between 13% and 16% - or one in six - of their parole decisions, at least three times the rate of those by victims which is estimated at between 1% and 5%”.
Harry Fletcher, founder of the Victims’ Right Campaign, warned the paper: “It will be a green light to prisoners convicted of serious violence and sexual offences to put in appeals because they have nothing to lose financially by doing so.”
“There’s a real danger the whole system will be swamped by prisoners appealing and the voice of the victim will get lost” he added.
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