I joined as Parole Board member 175 in the year 2000. There were about 20 of us new recruits and most were connected in some way with the law — either judges, barristers, magistrates, ex-probation officers, or senior ex-police officers. There were no members representing any minorities.
There were no oral hearings at prisons, although independent members (non-judges, psychiatrists, and psychologists) did go to interview the prisoners and feed that information into the dossiers. Dossiers were thin and contained only basic information as there were very few offending behaviour interventions available. The hearings took place in an office at the Parole Board, when up to 18 cases were considered by a panel of 3 members.
Gradually, the membership increased, and offence related courses and programmes were introduced into the prisons to address the identified risks for each individual prisoner. Panels of members then started to go to the prisons to deal with oral hearings where the prisoners voices were heard, and evidence was taken from probation officers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Decisions were full and reasoned and delivered in writing within 14 days of the hearing. This has expanded over the years with more ‘professional’ input and decisions that now must stand up to public scrutiny.
The test to be applied
A panel consists of a Chair - either a judge or another trained and qualified member - and up to two other members, who hear the evidence and perform a risk assessment. The general test is whether the person whose case is being heard would pose a risk of serious harm to the public, and whether that is a risk that can be safely managed. The decision made by the panel is a majority one, except in panels of two, where it must be agreed by both members.
Over the years the membership has increased significantly as the volume of work has greatly increased. The backgrounds of the members has changed so that it has become more representative of the public. However, in one important field it has shown little improved representation – that of the black and ethnic minority communities. It is vital that more members of those communities offer their services in this very valuable and fulfilling work.
Am I happy in my work?
I can honestly say that I would not have continued as a Parole Board member if I did not enjoy my work. It is onerous but satisfying, especially when you have been able to reach a decision that is fair to the prisoner, the victim, and the public. I have met, sat with, and made friends with so many different people, and discovered talent coming from many different walks of life. It has demonstrated to me that you don’t have to have been closely connected with the law to be a good Parole Board member.
Should you be afraid to do the work?
There is nothing to fear, as no one is sent out to do the work without proper training and help from mentors. There will also be refresher training at regular intervals. So don’t be afraid! Just give this important work some consideration.