Analysis: Informal system decides fate of those serving life

Former minister reveals to researchers that parole decision was based ‘on my gut feeling’

The parole board’s interviewing of prisoners eligible for parole was  central in its recommending whether they should be released. Photograph: The Irish Times

The parole board’s interviewing of prisoners eligible for parole was central in its recommending whether they should be released. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The surprisingly informal system under which the Parole Board of Ireland works is revealed in interviews conducted by academic researcher Dr Diarmuid Griffin with current and former board members and ministers for justice.

Many of those interviewed, including a former minister, were open in saying political connections influenced the make-up of the board, rather than a candidate’s suitability for considered and complex decision-making.

Said one former minister for justice: “I appointed quite a number of people who would have been of my political persuasion . . . Now you hear all this thing, you know, ‘They’re only party hacks’, or whatever. But, in fairness to them, they worked extremely hard.”

One person who has served on the board said: “I would have had a phone call from minister [X]’s adviser, who asked me . . . to submit a CV. I would also be a member of [ call in the first place.”

Another person described a similar process: “I knew the minister for justice and, through an associate of his . . . when a vacancy came up, he mentioned to me would I be interested, so I took the opportunity.”

Dr Griffin said the board’s interviewing of prisoners eligible for parole was a central element in its recommending whether they should be released. However, because the process was unstructured, it could give an advantage to those prisoners who were confident in interviews.

Interview decisions

One person who has been a board member said it was the interview, rather than reports and written assessments by many trained professionals, that was used to determine “what makes this person tick, what are the issues there”.

Another said he was “deeply uncomfortable” about the appropriateness of some of the questions put to prisoners.

“I think that’s inevitable if you’re given no training with interview techniques, you’re given no training as to what’s appropriate to ask during an interview, there are no guidelines as to what should or shouldn’t be asked in an interview, and you’re just basically sent in to interview a prisoner,” he said.

Despite reviewing often complex cases, one former chairman of the board could not recall ever having to take a vote on a decision, saying simply that “you manage to achieve” a decision.

Dr Griffin suggests that such consensus only arises when a much too conservative approach is taken.

One former chairman said that if a member voiced concern about a mooted release, the board would simply defer the case.

The current chairman conceded that the board had been accused of “only recommending release for, if you like, prisoners that are very, very low risk of re-offending, and maybe the board has been too conservative in the past”.

Another board member said: “I think there is an element of taking a chance perhaps, but that chance is almost 100 per cent safe”.

Risk

Dr Griffin says that while many board members said a prisoner’s risk of re-offending was central to its deliberations, other outside factors completely unrelated to the prisoner and the crimes under review were factored in.

One former board chairman was open about this when interviewed, saying: “I indicated that so common had murder become that human life had been cheapened and that the board must react to that.”

Dr Griffin also said that when deciding whether prisoners should be released or recalled, there was a line of communication between the board and the minister for justice of the day that was outside any formal correspondence.

A former minister said: “The chairman used to actually have an informal line of communication with me [as minister for justice]. He used to actually ring me up and say: ‘There’s Mr X’s case coming up, I just want you to know what our thinking was.’”

The same informal approach appeared to extend to some ministers deciding whether to release a life-sentence prisoner or refuse it.

One former minister for justice interviewed said: “I have to say, I didn’t, to be honest, pay much attention to [the statutory criteria]. I have to say, it was on my gut feeling.”

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