The power to approve or block the release of prisoners serving life sentences has been taken out of the hands of the minister for justice and assigned to the Parole Board under legislation that has just come into force.
The Parole Act permits the minister to draw up regulations extending parole, which effectively means allowing the early release of prisoners not serving life sentences.
In a significant shift, the Act provides for the creation of such regulations and could see parole being extended to prisoners serving sentences other than life imprisonment.
The Act puts the board on a statutory footing, a move flagged for years, and makes it independent. Life prisoners must now have served at least 12 years rather than the previous seven years before becoming eligible for parole.
“The change to the length of a life sentence which must be served, from seven years to 12 years, before an initial parole hearing is recognition that the previous period was distressing for victims. I believe the new period of 12 year is a positive change,” said Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys.
“I am also glad that the new board includes members who have significant experience of working with victims as well as prisoners.”
Mr Justice Michael White, the inaugural chair of the 13-member board, said he was "honoured" to take up the position, which he was nominated for by Chief Justice Frank Clarke.
“The legislation underpinning the board’s functions is excellent and I look forward to working with my fellow board members to implement it,” he said.
The board meets prisoners and can recommend the release of those jailed for life or recommend other steps such as a transfer to an open prison, which usually prepares inmates for their release.
Life sentence prisoners, of which there are around 350 in the State’s jails, usually serve about 20 years before being released, but can never gain full release.
Instead, they are effectively let out on licence, which means they can be taken back into prison to resume their sentence if they breach the conditions of their release. Breaches can be for consuming drugs or alcohol, reoffending or acting in a manner that suggests they remain a threat.
The Department of Justice said parole “can only be granted” if the board believes the applicant does “not pose an undue risk to the public”, that he or she “has been rehabilitated” and that it is “appropriate in all the circumstances” to release them on parole.
“Victims of crime will be able to make submissions to the board if they wish and may, under the Act, receive legal assistance in this regard,” it said.
The board meets and interviews prisoners seeking parole and can consider reports on their progress from the Probation Service, other agencies or individuals relevant to a life prisoner’s case, which can include victims or those close to someone who was murdered.
Under the previous system, the board made recommendations to the minister relating to life sentence prisoners, including supporting their release. While successive ministers have accepted almost all of its recommendations, they had the power to refuse them in full or in part. This at times meant the continued imprisonment of life sentence prisoners recommended for release by the board.