“His Honour” Gerald Clifton is a retired circuit ,judge and a member of the Parole Board for England and Wales. His job, in part, is to chair parole hearings and consider prisoners like myself for release. However, writing in The Times recently, he has nailed his colours to the mast and directly contradicted the aims and remit of The Parole Board.
“There are sadly a very large number of prisoners who are dangerous, be they murderers, or violent or sexual offenders.” He wrote. “Rehabilitation or not, they must remain behind bars for a considerable time.”
However, this demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of British sentencing guidelines which is inexcusable for a retired judge. In England and Wales the most serious offenders (including all murders and a large proportion of violent or sexual offenders as well as many less serious offenders too) are given Life sentences. This does not mean that they will necessarily spend the rest of their life in prison, only that they may be detained for the rest of their life, if they continue to pose a risk. These prisoners are then given a minimum term or tariff. This is the period they must serve before the Parole Board will ever even consider releasing them. I have known tariffs to range from six months to nearly forty years, depending on the seriousness of the offence. This is the ‘punitive element’ of the sentence and no life sentenced prisoner will be considered for release by Mr Clifton and the Parole Board until that term has been fully served. There is no bringing it forward, there is no serving only half of the term. You serve the full tariff as a minimum.
Next comes the ‘rehabilitative element’ or ‘risk assessed element’ of the sentence. The prisoner will remain in custody until the Parole Board deems them a low enough risk to be trusted in the community, at which point they will order the prisoner’s release. The prisoner will be able to demonstrate that they are ready for release through positive behaviour, engagement with rehabilitation programs, and general progress in various areas from education to debt management.
At least that is the theory. It is difficult enough for prisoners to demonstrate any real progress in a system which readily notes even the smallest of negative points but is resistant to noting any positives which are not demonstrably attributable to the system’s own efforts and processes. Mr Clifton’s statements show a deeper problem. If prisoners do not even appear in front of Mr Clifton and the Parole Board before the punitive element has already been served, at which point they may well have sufficiently demonstrated themselves to be of low enough risk to be released, then why would Mr Clifton adopt the attitude that “Rehabilitation or not, they must remain behind bars for a considerable period of time”?
Mr Clifton seems to be saying that when a prisoner such as myself (with a minimum tariff of less than three years) appears at a hearing he chairs, he does not think we should be released, irrespective of whether we have been fully rehabilitated and are no longer a risk to the public, and irrespective of the fact that we have served the punitive element legally imposed at sentencing. This is in direct opposition to the stated aims of the Parole Board, for whom Mr Clifton works and shows exactly the kind of bias which indeterminate sentenced prisoners such as myself face at every parole hearing we attend.
When penitence, progress, and rehabilitation are not enough, parole depends solely on the arbitrary judgement of the panel.