An increase in the time a life sentence prisoner must serve before being considered for parole should not come at the expense of rehabilitation support, a charity has warned.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust, a leading charity that campaigns on behalf of prisoners, welcomed the Government’s announcement of a new Parole Board that for the first time will be fully independent from the Minister for Justice.
However, the trust warned that the Parole Act’s increase in the time a life-sentenced prisoner must now serve before being considered for parole – from seven to 12 years – must not cause delays in rehabilitation services in Irish prisons.
Irish Penal Reform Trust executive director Fiona Ni Chinneide said: “Sentence management should begin shortly after the sentence is received, and not when the first parole review is coming up. It is also important that access to other rehabilitative measures such as open prisons, which reduce institutionalisation and support normalisation, are not impacted by this change.”
We welcome the increase in resources and we would hope to see the resources continually reviewed to ensure it's sufficient for the Parole Board to carry out its functionMolly Joyce, Irish Penal Reform Trust
The new Parole Board, unlike the body it replaces, will be fully independent from the Justice Minister.
In December 2020, it was announced the board’s funding would increase to 1.3 million euros in 2021 to support the transition to the new, statutory model.
This change means that decisions on the release of life-sentenced prisoners and the early release of prisoners serving long sentences will be made by the Parole Board, as opposed to the Minister for Justice.
Molly Joyce, legal and public affairs manager at the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said it was important that the new Parole Board is well funded into the future and avoids a backlog of cases.
“We would always be concerned about the length of time it takes for decisions to come through,” she said.
“We welcome the increase in resources and we would hope to see the resources continually reviewed to ensure it’s sufficient for the Parole Board to carry out its function.”
The latest figures from the Department of Justice show that of 68 Parole Board recommendations from the start of the year to May 27, 44 were accepted in full by the minister, with 21 partially accepted and three rejected.
I believe that the new independent Parole Board will considerably improve the system as it currently operatesMinister for Justice Heather Humphreys
Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys said: “Transparency and accountability is vital in achieving fairness for victims of crime and rehabilitation for the prisoners. I believe that the new independent Parole Board will considerably improve the system as it currently operates.”
The Government is still in the process of recruiting a full-time chief executive for the new board – an interim chief executive is currently in place.
In December 2020, then-minister for justice Helen McEntee said she hoped that the new Parole Board would be fully operational by July 2021.
Last year, Ms McEntee also said it was “vital” that the current Parole Board’s backlog was cleared before the establishment of the new board.
The PA news agency asked the Department of Justice if that backlog had been cleared.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the department said: “All recommendations from the Interim Parole Board submitted to the Minister (up until the end of June) have been decided upon and the people involved have been informed of the decision.
“There are a number of procedural matters which need to be resolved before the new Board can begin to consider cases.
“It was not possible to deal with these issues prior to the commencement of the Act as the Act provides the legal basis for the procedures concerned.”
The spokesperson said these matters included the identification of eligible prisoners and the setting up of a legal aid panel.