Warning over strain on parole commissioners
Measures to release life prisoners - usually murderers - from jail in Northern Ireland will not be sustainable should the number of cases rise, it was warned today.
Parole commissioners face extra work because of changes to the law, the Criminal Justice Inspectorate said. Current levels of attention to detail will be untenable if the volume of cases increases because of the fresh responsibilities.
Around 20 cases a year are currently processed but that may rise when extended and indeterminate sentence cases are included. However, overall risk management arrangements compared favourably with other jurisdictions, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice Dr Michael Maguire said.
"My opinion, based on the findings of the review, is that the current management arrangements are not sustainable should there be a significant increase in the number of cases being considered," he said.
Life prisoners who could become eligible for release in the future include Trevor Hamilton, who murdered Co Tyrone pensioner Attracta Harron and dumped her body near a river in 2003.
Dr Maguire added: "We did find a number of weaknesses in the current system. This was of particular concern as the number of cases has grown steadily in recent years and is likely to increase even more rapidly with the introduction of new legislation leading to further pressure on the lifer-management system."
There are 25 parole commissioners plus a small support team.
Under the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008, they assume responsibility for assessing the suitability for release of extended custodial sentences and indeterminate custodial sentences as well as life prisoners.
For an indeterminate sentence no release date is given. For an extended sentence a portion of time is spent in custody and an extended time on licence.
The 43-page document made 22 recommendations which included training of staff and holding some life prisoners at Magilligan Prison, Co Londonderry. Others included:
:: The Northern Ireland Prison Service (Nips) should balance the need for suitably experienced staff with the need to ensure appropriate rotation of staff who work with lifers;
:: The Nips should strengthen its offending behaviour programme delivery structure to manage the needs of all prisoners and develop an effective database;
:: There should be a programme to address men who murdered their partners;
:: The Prison Service should establish close links with the public protection team;
:: It should develop a specific approach for managing indeterminate sentenced prisoners ensuring their risks and needs are properly addressed, while the risks and needs of ordinary lifers are not neglected.
At the time of the review, there were 55 life prisoners at or beyond the point of being considered for release. The number of lifers has grown steadily in recent years.
The dossier added that staff were working hard and conscientiously.
"There were, however, clear pressure points in the risk assessment and management processes which have to be addressed if risks are to be minimised," it said.
"Our review identified a number of areas that were causing delays and system failures in the process of risk assessment of life sentence prisoners."
Inspectors commended the improved co-ordination between the agencies involved in dealing with life sentence prisoners that had occurred in recent years.
Dr Maguire said risk assessment continued throughout the prisoner's time in custody.
"There was also an enhanced focus on the incorporation of victims' needs into the management of prisoners," he added.