Problems with the parole system including a “stubbornly high” number of delays with cases add to the “stresses of victims during an already challenging time”, according to a report.
The Government findings come amid plans to overhaul the system which could see victims allowed to attend Parole Board hearings and proceedings covered by the press in a bid to remove the secrecy surrounding the process.
Hearings currently take place in private, normally in prisons, with victims and observers like reporters being given limited access in rare circumstances.
The assessment of the parole system by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), part of routine checks on public bodies the Government carries out at least once every parliament, found “several issues” which continue to affect Parole Board performance and prevent the system from being more efficient.
It said delays in the parole process remain “stubbornly high”, adding that this puts pressure on prison places and leads to “wasted costs” because of duplicated work.
The “quality and timeliness” of information needed to improve so hearings were more productive, it said, raising concerns the Parole Board lacked “court-like powers”, was not seen by some as being “truly independent” and should be distanced from “ministerial and political influence”.
Prior to the pandemic, more hearings were taking place in the wake of the case of black cab rapist John Worboys, even though deciding simpler cases “on paper” was more cost-effective and often quicker, the report said.
It added: “Combined, these issues result in additional and avoidable system costs, delays to hearings, and create pressures on the resources of the Parole Board and the broader parole system, and adds to the stresses of victims during an already challenging time.”
Among a series of recommendations, the Board was told to address delays and look at making more decisions without a hearing while the report said the entire system needed to work in a much more “unified manner”.
It also backed plans for the press to cover hearings, saying: “Recent media coverage has highlighted that the role of the Parole Board is not well understood by the public.
“To address this, it should continue to seek to be as transparent as possible, without compromising the effectiveness or independence of its decision making.
“The review team is supportive of the plans to allow media access to hearings.”
The proposed overhaul of the parole system comes after a 2018 Parole Board direction to release Worboys was overturned by the High Court amid outcry that his victims had not been part of the original decision-making process – prompting ministers to pledge more transparency over the decisions.
Although some rules have since changed – allowing Parole Board decisions to be challenged without the need to go to court and more information being made available to the public – there is still criticism of the process being overly secretive.
At the same time, Charles Bronson, one of the UK’s longest serving and most notorious prisoners, is bringing a bid to the High Court to have his latest parole hearing in public.
If he succeeds, this could set a legal precedent for other such hearings.
But there are concerns opening up hearings could see prisoners try to “embellish” their evidence to gain public sympathy or put pressure on the Board, and risks offenders “acting up” for the camera, a consultation paper on the plans warned.
The review will look at whether tribunal-style hearings would be a better option, with the Board given legal powers to compel witnesses to attend hearings or maybe even find people in contempt of court.
Justice minister Lucy Frazer said this was a chance to take a “fundamental look” at the system to make sure it continues to protect the public by releasing offenders “only when it is safe to do so”.
The Parole Board welcomed the news, with its chief executive Martin Jones telling the Daily Telegraph high-profile hearings should be held in public so “justice can be seen to be done”.
Although panels would still need powers to close proceedings when discussing sensitive information, a spokesman added.
A public consultation is open until December 1, with the findings expected next summer.