Chris Marshall: We need to know why prison inmates get released

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It’s time to make parole board deliberations public, writes Chris Marshall.

When news emerged earlier this month of the decision to release serial sex attacker John Worboys from prison, it took many by surprise – not least some of his victims.

One woman described finding out as she prepared dinner for her children, another as she browsed the internet.

While the authorities’ failure to notify these women is unforgivable, the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to bring more charges against Worboys may yet prove the biggest error in the handling of the case.

The Crown Prosecution Service received files relating to 83 separate complainants against Worboys, but says 69 did not pass the evidential test.

However it is the decision of the parole board to release Worboys which has attracted most of the controversy.

READ MORE: Parole board in ‘political interference’ warning after Worboys decision outcry

Sentenced to a minimum jail term of eight years in 2009 for assaults on 12 women, the former taxi driver had served his sentence and was therefore technically eligible for release, although fresh allegations could delay this.

While he will likely remain under strict licence conditions for the rest of his life if he is released, many have questioned how a man who allegedly attacked more than 100 women can no longer be considered a threat.

This high-profile case has led to calls for more transparency around how the parole board in England and Wales makes its decisions.

Professor Nick Hardwick, the board’s chair, has indicated his support for making decisions public in certain cases.

In a wide-ranging speech made last year, Professor Hardwick said his own board could not complain about “ill-informed criticism” from the media when its decisions continued to be made in private.

He suggested exploring the Canadian model where anyone, including the press, can apply to attend a parole board hearing.

READ MORE: Murderer Robert McIntosh attacked Dundee woman while on prison leave

But while the Worboys case has pushed the issue of parole board deliberations to the top of the agenda south of the border, there has been no real discussion of it in Scotland.

Indeed, in a public consultation on parole board reform which ran last year, the issue was not even covered.

In certain cases, the chair of the board may direct that the proceedings are made public, but in practice this rarely happens.

There are clearly sensitivities around the release of such information – not least the threat of legal challenges from victims and others who disagree with the decision.

But, in high-profile cases of public interest, the publication of parole board deliberations could be an important tool in improving public understanding of a criminal justice system which often appears aloof and impenetrable.

It may also mitigate against some of the adverse media coverage which tends to follow the release of high-profile prisoners.

One of the repeated criticisms levelled at the Crown Office during an inquiry held by MSPs last year was that victims of crime often felt let down by poor communication and a lack of information about their case.

The public prosecutor is not the complainant’s lawyer, but it’s clear more must to be done to help provide support to those going through the courts.

At the other end of the criminal justice system, we must make sure victims are not only informed when those jailed for serious offences are due to be released, but also fully apprised of why that decision has been made.