Significant changes are in the pipeline governing the granting of parole to prisoners in Portlaoise and other prisons.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD, has this morning outlined plans for a new Parole Bill at the Parole Board Conference at the Law Society, Blackhall Place.
Explaining that the new Bill will put the Parole Board on a statutory footing, the Minister emphasised the importance, in drawing it up, of taking different positions into account.
“There is no question but that parole is a sensitive issue. Like so many such issues, it’s about trying to find a balance… a balance between the rights and needs of victims, of offenders, indeed of society. Trying to reduce reoffending, and ensure that no further harm is caused to victims or society, goes to the core of a criminal justice system. But I think it is important to make the point that parole does not just benefit prisoners. It can also benefit society if and when it helps rehabilitate and successfully reintegrate prisoners back into their communities,” he said.
Minister Flanagan emphasised, in particular, the importance placed on victims in proposed new legislation.
“In respect of victims, the Parole Bill provides that where a review or hearing has been scheduled, the Board will give notice to a victim that such a review or hearing is pending, and will prepare and send the victim an explanation of the process and an account of how they may participate. The right to make submissions or give oral evidence to the board is also included as is a provision for legal representation.
There are also provisions to protect the victim from further harm. An order if granted, may for example include that the offender not attend at or be in the vicinity of specified locations, or not communicate with specified persons, directly or indirectly.
It may also ensure that the person subject to it not be permitted to travel outside the jurisdiction, and in considering an order, the Board may also seek information from anyone it considers may have an interest in the application, including the victim.
"I should also add that the Irish Prison Service Victim Liaison Service continues to provide support for victims by engaging openly and meaningfully with them, to ensure appropriate information, support and protection. Victims or their relatives, who register with the Scheme are informed in advance of the Board’s review of the prisoner and the Victim Liaison Officer advises the victim or their family of any decision arising out of each review.”
The new Parole Bill, proposed by Deputy Jim O’Callaghan and accepted by Government, will establish the Parole Board as an independent statutory body. Establishing the Parole Board as a statutory body has been a policy objective for some time and was recommended by the Penal Policy Review Group, the Law Reform Commission and the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.
“The Bill will give the independent Board responsibility for granting parole to eligible prisoners and it sets out the criteria to be considered in doing so – criteria which include risk to public safety and the extent to which release will facilitate the prisoner’s reintegration into society.
"The Bill also sets out the terms for eligibility for consideration for parole, including a proposal to raise it for life sentence prisoners, to a minimum of 12 years served. This is a significant change from the existing administrative system, which considers life sentences for the first time after seven years,” he said.
The Parole Board was established on an administrative basis, to replace the Sentence Review Group, in April 2001. It is an independent non-statutory body and it was established by the Government to advise the Minister for Justice and Equality on the management of people serving long-term prison sentences.
As things stand, the Board may review the cases of prisoners sentenced to determinate sentences of more than 8 years but less than 14 years when the prisoner has served half of the sentence. The cases of prisoners sentenced to 14 years or more, or life sentences, are reviewed after 7 years have been served. Prisoners serving sentences for certain offences, such as the murder of a member of the Garda Síochána or the Prison Service in the course of their duty, are excluded from the process.
The Board, by way of recommendation, advises the Minister for Justice and Equality of the prisoner's progress to date, the degree to which the prisoner has engaged with the various therapeutic services and how best to proceed with the future administration of the sentence. The Minister then considers in full all recommendations put before him before making the final decision regarding sentence management.
In terms of the board make-up, individuals are appointed by the Minister. There are currently fourteen members, who are all there on foot of their experience, skills and formal qualifications for the role.