Warning parole shake-up could prove costly to State

10 per cent of Ireland’s prison population is made up of life sentence prisoners

John Costello, head  of the Parole Board: “In England over the five-year period from 2011 over £1 million was paid to prisoners because of delayed parole hearings.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

John Costello, head of the Parole Board: “In England over the five-year period from 2011 over £1 million was paid to prisoners because of delayed parole hearings.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

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Parole – the process allowing for the release for Ireland’s most serious criminals – is due to get a major shake-up later this year when the Oireachtas finally passes the Parole Bill 2016.

For John Costello, the head of the Parole Board, the changes can’t come soon enough. He explains the key planned reforms as well as the benefits and challenges they will present.

Life sentence prisoners, most of them convicted of murder, won’t be able to apply for parole until they have served 12 years, up from the current seven. The Parole Board, which is to be put on a statutory footing, will have the final say on whether or not a prisoner is released. Currently the Minister for Justice makes the final decision (“Although he follows the board’s recommendations 95 per cent of the time,” says Costello).

The board itself, which is currently composed of 12 people from different areas of the criminal justice system, will be broken down into panels of three or five to hear individual cases.

One of the biggest challenges is a requirement under the new law that all parole hearings take place within six months of when they are first due. This is a cause for concern for Costello, who says “the vast majority” of hearings are currently delayed well beyond that six month time limit.

Some are even delayed for up to a year and this won’t change unless the board receives significantly more resources.

Before making a decision on whether to recommend parole to the Minister, that Parole Board must consider reports from various agencies including the Probation Service, the Garda and prison psychiatrists.

“The problem is the service providers which provide these reports, they’ve a huge workload many of them and they have competing services to provide,” Costello told The Irish Times.

The delays are so bad that some categories of prisoners aren’t even bothering to apply for parole.

As well as considering life-sentence prisoners, the Parole Board also considers prisoners with a fixed sentence of eight years or more.

These prisoners can apply for parole at the half-way mark of their sentence but many don’t because they know they will get an automatic 25 per cent remission on their sentences – it’s sometimes quicker and easier to wait for the remission to kick in rather than wait on a decision on from the Parole Board.

As well has violating prisoner rights, delayed parole hearings may become very costly to the State, Costello warns. The new law will place the six-month time limit on a statutory footing, leaving the way open for prisoners to sue if their hearings are delayed.

“In England over the five-year period from 2011 over £1 million was paid to prisoners because of delayed parole hearings,” says Costello.

“We’re going to face a similar onslaught of claims, in my view, if we are not efficient. And when I saw we, it’s not just the Parole Board, it’s all the service providers.”

A Department of Justice spokesman said resourcing of the new board “will be considered and agreed to coincide with the Bill becoming law.” He said, “intensive work is taking place on the bill and the Minister “expects to bring further proposals to Cabinet in the coming weeks.”

The new Parole Board will have its work cut out. The number of life sentence prisoners has dramatically increased – from 139 in 2001 to about 355 at present.

Currently about 10 per cent of Ireland’s prison population is made up of life sentence prisoners, one of the highest rates in Europe.

Last year the board dealt with more cases than ever before.

Many of the people coming before Costello and his colleagues are murderers, rapists and child abusers.

So how can Costello and his team be sure they won’t reoffend if released?

“Obviously when the Parole Board makes a decision, public safety is our priority and we get many risk assessment reports. I think basically there has to be generally a universal opinion that the prisoner is of low risk of reoffending.”

Those who seem ready for the outside world are moved to an open prison near the end of their sentence before been granted day-release. When the board makes a final decision to release someone it relies on reports from the Probation Service, the Psychology Service, the Prison Review Committee, and the Governor. It can also have regard to letters from the victim or their families. Surprisingly, these are often in support of a prisoner’s release.

While on parole prisoners are monitored by the Probation Service and can be recalled to prison at any time. According to Costello there are currently about 85 former life sentence prisoners living in the community without any trouble.

Released life-sentence prisoners have one of the lowest reoffending rates among prison cohorts. “It’s because they’ve had so long inside, they have improved themselves and with age alone have gotten a bit wiser,” Costello says.

When lifers do reoffend, it tends to be for minor offences and in some cases they reoffend just to go back inside.

“In prison they have a degree of comfort; they have all their needs meet. And some of them unfortunately face great challenges if they get parole,” he said.

Some are terrified to go back into the community. As a result of the housing crisis, some prisoners also fear they will have nowhere to live on release.

One way to combat institutionalisation is to get prisoners thinking about their release well in advance. That’s why Costello wants to continue meeting life sentence prisoners at the seven-year mark even though they won’t be eligible for release for another five years under the new system.

Stephen Doyle, who was sentenced to life for murder in 2000 is the example Costello cites.

Doyle was released after just 13 years – well before the current average life term of 17 years – due to his efforts at rehabilitation and his charity work in helping other prisoners prepare for the life on the outside.

After his release, he ran Care After Prison, which worked with released prisoners on accommodation and addiction issues.

“So he is an example of someone who deserved to be paroled early,” said Costello. “We go around to prisoners and we say you can become the next Stephen Doyle if you put the effort in.”

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