Michael Robinson is a specialist criminal law litigator and advocate.
An increasing number of Parole Board oral hearings are being granted now, due to the fact that they must now be granted where it is of importance to the prisoner that they have an oral hearing of their case, as opposed to previously, when they were generally only granted if report writers were recommending release or transfer to open conditions.
This change in focus, together with the removal of legal aid for issues such as obtaining access to offending behaviour work or challenging one’s sentence plan, has led to oral hearings often becoming the most effective means for a prisoner who has struggled to make progress through no fault of his (or her) own to move forward with their sentence. Even if you are unlikely to be released at your forthcoming hearing or be moved to open conditions as a result of it, it is now possible to ensure that your hearing will put you in a position to do just that at the next one.
Increasingly, we have noticed that Panel Chairs are willing to encourage prison psychology departments to reassess prisoners for the required offending behaviour courses and find ways to provide these to those prisoners. It is noteworthy that many such departments, who have previously refused to provide courses and one to one work or even assess someone for this, change their approach completely when issued with a Parole Board direction. The directions of the Parole Board are not merely suggestions, they are essentially judicial orders and must be complied with. A number of our clients have attended a hearing where no one was supporting their release, obtained a direction that the Psychology Department must provide them work within the next few months and then been released at the re-listed hearing shortly after completing the work.
In an ideal world, a prisoner who has genuinely addressed the issues arising from offences he or she has committed and answers questions honestly at their hearing, should always be released by the Parole Board. Sadly, it is not as simple as that. As most of you will be aware, psychological assessments and treatments are considered of paramount importance within the Criminal Justice System at present. This is one way in which instructing a solicitor should assist, as we are able to secure funding to instruct an independent psychologist to conduct such an assessment and we also know which psychologists do good work and which ones think that they must prepare all reports as if they are working for the Crown Prosecution Service. You should not rely on the Prison Service obtaining a psychological risk assessment for your hearing as often they do not and many hearings are being adjourned for several months due to the lack of such an assessment.
Instructing a solicitor can also be useful as any experienced prison lawyer will be able to take you through the process of an oral hearing in advance and give examples of the sorts of questions you might be asked in order to ensure that you are not surprised when you get into the hearing. Knowing what is going to happen in advance helps you give better evidence as you will be more relaxed and less likely to be phased if someone does ask a question you were not expecting. If any nasty surprises do come up during the hearing, you would be able to stop the hearing to discuss it with your solicitor, just like in a police interrogation.
Solicitors are also in the position to discuss your case with those who will write reports about you, such as your Offender Manager (outside probation) or Offender Supervisor (internal report writer). We can point out truths to them that could be classed by those with a negative mindset as ‘minimisation’ or ‘impression management’. If we tell them that we think you have been unfairly treated over a particular issue it is often accepted and it does not give them the opportunity to allege that you are a ‘complainer’ or ‘anti-authority.’
It is not simply a matter of instructing a solicitor though and there are many things that you can do which will help to ensure that your hearing goes as well as it possibly could. A number of these things will make the difference between a knock-back and release or transfer to open conditions. Even though they may seem obvious, many prisoners do not do these things and are disappointed at the outcome of their hearing as a result.
1 – Get references: These can be from family and friends as to support they can offer in the community and any changes they have seen in you over the course of your sentence. They could also be from a prison work supervisor, DART worker or other staff members who are prepared to say positive things about you. Statements from other prisoners who find you a supportive friend or positive influence in some way can be very helpful, but try to ensure that they are not from the prisoners who get into trouble on the wing or it may backfire if you are then considered to be ‘associating with negative influences.’ The best reference of all is from someone who is prepared to offer you employment in the community, as the Parole Board are aware that full time employment can be a major factor in reducing criminal activity.
2 – Do any in cell packs or short duration courses available: Once you have your hearing date, even if you have no accredited offending behaviour work on your sentence plan or have recommendations for release, you should continue to do all you can to show the Parole Board that you see addressing risk as an ongoing need. It is far preferable to having your hearing and then receiving a negative decision because the Panel ‘felt that you did not appreciate the depth of your problems.’
3 – Revise: Go through any workbooks and reports you have from offending behaviour programmes you have done. You will be expected to be able to explain what skills you still use from these programmes and give examples of when you last used them.
4 – Keep a diary: Increasingly greater importance is being placed by the Parole Board on prisoners keeping a record about any occurrences of the ‘risk factors’ or ‘schemas’ that are thought to be relevant to them. They like to be able to see that a) you are aware of what your risk factors are thought to be and b) that you are monitoring on a day to day basis when anything that could be linked to these factors has arisen and how you dealt with it. A number of prisoners have not secured the outcome they wanted due to failing to keep such records and the Parole Board are not keen on being told that it wasn’t done because there was no one suitably qualified to discuss it with or no one reminded me that I needed to do it. Great emphasis is now placed on prisoners doing things for themselves and being proactive can work wonders.
5 – Keep in touch with your Offender Manager and Offender Supervisor: Tell them about your efforts in doing all of the above and try to ensure that you make them feel that you are someone who will be open and honest and keep them informed about things if you were to be released. Of particular importance is letting your Offender Manager know about your release plans, as anything mentioned at a hearing that they say they knew nothing about will cause the Panel to question whether you have been fully open with the person who will be responsible for your supervision. This can be fatal to a release application. If your Offender Manager or Offender Supervisor ignores your attempts to keep in touch with them, keep copies of letters or applications sent to them and a log of times you have tried to call them. If the Parole Board can see that you have made all reasonable efforts in this respect, it will be very hard for them to hold it against you.
Best wishes for your oral hearing.
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